In 2016, the UK held a referendum on our membership of the EU. Problem number one: the question was vague. It was a this or not this binary option. At no point was a choice offered on the wide spectrum of possibilities encompassed by the not this option. But that’s not to say that the various Leave campaigns failed to provide opinions on what they believed would happen. They were often contradictory, regularly disreputable and sometimes just downright untruthful. But a picture was painted, even if the result did rather resemble a Rorschach test. A test that elicited visions of joy and prosperity from 17 million participants, and doom and gloom from the other 16 million people who took part.
Pre-referendum quotes by prominent Leave campaigners can be found in abundance across the web. They haven’t aged well. Only a madman would leave the single market; even in the worst case scenario, we will be better off after Brexit; we’ll get exactly the same benefits from the EU after Brexit; the Norwegian (EFTA) option is looking increasingly the best for the UK; this will be the easiest trade deal in history; we’ll be able to give £350 million a week to the NHS. I could go on. And on. Brexiters provided enough verbal ammunition for a political genocide. But in this brave new world, the New Trump Order reigns supreme and facts are something to be derided.
But compare those shameless boasts to Brexiter claims today. To stay in the single market would be a betrayal. A no-deal Brexit is not just a possibility, but the preferred option for a significant number of MPs. There is no Brexit Dividend to invest in the NHS. Planes may not fly. Food and medicine will be stockpiled. There are possibly preparations for rationing. We will not see any benefits from Brexit for 30 to 50 years. No one said Brexit was going to make us better off.
The question on the EU Referendum ballot paper became troublesome the moment the result was called for Leave, and the ghost of a second referendum has hung over the political scene ever since. Those on the winning side do not, unsurprisingly, want a second referendum. Why would they? But their claims that the will of the people must not be defied is a slogan that belies the facts – how many Leave voters thought that we would leave the Single Market? We simply don’t know. A soft Brexit would be a betrayal, they say. That directly contradicts many of the statements made by Leavers.
These arguments are an affront to democracy. A referendum can be irrevocable or democratic – it cannot be both. A second referendum on the final deal was always going to be a moral necessity based on the This or Not This question. That the Vote Leave campaigns have been found guilty of cheating, with further controversies including conspiring with Cambridge Analytica, bribery, Russian influence and other undemocratic allegations, a final deal referendum is fast becoming a political necessity. But it’s the incredible disparity between what Leave promised – Instant Success! – and what they now acknowledge can actually be delivered – Benefits After You’re Dead! – that makes a second referendum absolutely vital for this country to lay any sort of claim to being a modern, viable democracy.
If the UK were to tumble out of the EU without a deal, history will not be kind to the perpetrators. They will have duped the nation and forced through a policy of enormous and detrimental consequence. The undercurrent of prejudice that has engulfed the country courtesy of some Leave campaigners leaves not just a bad taste in the mouth, but combined with the subversion of democracy, the stench of fascism in the air.
I have some support for a second referendum, from unlikely sources. It was Nigel Farage who declared, before the referendum result, that a 52%-48% result would be unfinished business. Too right, Nigel. But more interesting is a speech made in parliament by arch-Brexiter David Davis in 2003. I’ll leave that below for you to read. Whilst historical tweets are sometimes used against people unfairly, or even out of context, this is a detailed and thought out argument made on a point of principle. It would be interesting to know how Mr Davis reconciles that speech in the last decade with his opposition to a People’s Vote in the current one.
“Let us deal with the major problem with the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister says the Bill will bring about more democracy, but, in a democracy, voters have to know what they are voting for. They need to know what the choice is, to use his own word. For that to happen, the proposition has to come before the vote, but with the Bill, it will be vote first, proposition afterwards. The Bill proposes that referendums should be held without voters knowing the structure or powers of the assemblies for which they are asked to vote. Even the Deputy Prime Minister would have a hard job to convince anyone that that is democratic.
Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting….
We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.”