Monday 24 September 2018

Why there should not be a people's vote

Of all people I should be the last one to side with Farage and the like in all matters of Brexit. As a German without a British passport I will lose most of my civil rights on 19th March 2019. However, recently I found myself increasingly frustrated and worried about the calls for a second referendum or people's vote on Brexit. There may be many things wrong with the first Brexit vote, not least our lack of understanding of how social media may or may not have been used (unduly) to influence the outcome of the vote. However, I do not find the various reasons for a second vote convincing. Here is why.

Argument 1: They did not know what they voted on

This is a bad argument to put forward. Not only does it reak of patronising voters it also cuts both ways. If people had really been ignorant of what the referendum question was about (or what a decision either way entailed) then re-running the referendum assumes that voters can only genuinely cast their vote under conditions of absolute knowledge. This strikes me as a ludicrous condition for voting in a democratic society. Whether we like it or not, frivolous voting is a right everyone has in a free country. And so is voting on grounds of self-declared ignorance.

The outcome of the negotiations need to be endorsed by the voters

Well, it does indeed. That's what parliament is for. Referenda are a poor mechanism to discriminate between policy options. And if I remember correctly that was also an argument against the first referendum. I still agree with this and hence a second referendum would solve little that cannot be decided by elected MPs.

We should stop Brexit 

That's probably the most annoying argument and one that is most likely to backfire. There is no guarantee that a second referendum would yield a substantial majority for remaining in the EU. Just think about the difficulty of drafting the referendum question. Would it be a three way choice between 'the deal', 'no deal' and remaining in EU? That would split the 'remain camp' and likely deliver a supporting vote for 'the deal', whatever that may be. So, remainers would not get from such a referendum what they wanted (to preserve EU membership). And why would people 'know' more about 'the deal' or 'no deal' options if they, allegedly, were in a state of fateful ignorance about the benefits of EU membership? Are the ramifications of 'the deal' any simpler to grasp? 

So, why are we talking about a second referendum or people's vote? It may be worthwhile to have a look at who is advocating it. John Harris's podcasts are little windows into our divided soul. And it seems to me that the dividing line between us runs somewhere between London/South of England and the rest of England and Wales. I think it's no surprise that this is also roughly the line that divides the well off from the deprived areas in England, those that have benefitted from, and have accommodated themselves with immigration and a global economy and those that have not.

I accept that Brexit will not rectify the injustices and imbalances between London and the rest of the country. But, living in the North West of England, I also understand those who feel left behind and may now look on with some schadenfreude as London house prices fall and multinational companies start to relocate to other European cities. The movement for the people's vote is born out of a recognition that with Brexit, London and the South of England would suffer (though the rest of England would disproportionately suffer even more). Yet for Londoners who have treated the rest of the country with imperial disdain and contempt for decades, many Northerners thought this was pay back time. And I can't blame them.

In this context, campaigning for a people's vote appears to be counterproductive. It ties up energies that are really needed to argue for a sensible, smooth exit from the EU. It would make more sense to work out how we can get to an EFTA or Norway solution and how to get this through parliament rather than wasting political capital on preventing something that has democratic legitimacy: leaving the European Union.

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