The Case Against a Second Brexit Referendum
In the Fourth Century court of King Dionysus, the sycophantic courtier, Damocles, couldn’t believe his luck. His latest bout of flattery had won him a tantalizing proposition: swap places with the King and occupy his throne for the day. As Damocles was showered with the trappings of luxury and wealth, he happened to glance above his head, only to see a sword hanging by a single strand of horsehair.
British Prime Minister Theresa May must have felt a similar sense of mortal peril this week as she sat in the House of Commons to deliver her latest news of the Brexit extension. With each delay, Damocles’ sword hangs heavier still, as Brussels can exact more concessions from Britain. Having seen her battered deal rejected by Parliament three times already, the tired leader reached across the political aisle to see if she could have better luck by finding a compromise with her Labour opposition. Yet, with no clear consensus on how to solve the problems of the Irish backstop, and an almost universal hatred of May’s deal, it seems as if the UK has reached an impasse.
In these dire straits, there seems to be only one solution remaining: put the decision to the British public. Hold a second referendum and let the people decide.
Indeed, calls for a “People’s Vote” have won support from both prominent politicians and members of the public, hundreds of thousand of whom marched last month in support of the campaign. Their argument is based on the notion that Brexit is no longer the “will of the people,” and current statistics show that they might be right. Today, 41% of Brits would vote ‘Remain,’ 35% would vote ‘Leave,’ and 24% would be ‘Undecided.’
With almost a quarter of the electorate still undecided, how can we be sure that a second referendum would provide the clear majority the government would need to backtrack Brexit? The widespread uncertainty among the public suggests that people have not necessarily changed their minds about leaving Europe, but are instead reacting to the chaos of our government’s inertia with fear.
The “People’s Vote” camp also contends that the first referendum was decided by a campaign of misinformation and outright lies. This alone, they argue, justifies a second vote, which would enable people to make an informed decision. Indeed, faced with a similar situation of voter misinformation, Switzerland recently decided to re-run a nationwide referendum.
However, the tight October 31st deadline would make it almost impossible to ensure that every voter would have the time to make an informed decision. Moreover, separating the facts of Brexit from the hyperbole would require the wisdom of Solomon. In reality, no one knows in concrete terms how a post-Brexit world would look, so a second referendum would be based on projections and conjecture. What is more, the argument belies the fact that people did not necessarily vote for Brexit based upon the veracity of the statistics used in the campaign. Central to the “Take Back Control” message of the Brexiteers was its rejection of cosmopolitanism and its reassertion of sovereignty. It is not certain that a second vote, based upon facts rather than lies, would not still be subject to the same deeply nationalistic rhetoric as the first.
The most compelling case against a “People’s Vote,” however, is that referendums should not dictate public policy. The decision to leave or remain should never have been put to the British public in 2016, and we should not try to fix our mistake by putting it back to the people today.
In his account of the Fifth Century Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provides the classic example of democracy in action. Having defeated an uprising of their colony, the Athenian people must decide whether to punish the Mytleans or exercise clemency. Hearing the arguments of both sides, the Athenians initially choose to make an example of the rebels. Yet, after more debate, they reverse their decision and vote to show mercy on the insurgents.
In their exercise of restraint and their collective decision-making, the Athenians stake their claim as the forebearers of democracy. Yet, we no longer live in small city-states dealing with yes or no answers. We live in complex societies, where policy solutions are no longer binary. The “will of the people” is too nebulous a concept when we have such varied views. Referendums cannot reflect nuance; they simply reflect a majority, and in a society which is so divided, one group will inevitably lose out. Instead, we elect representatives who reflect our interests and who should be able to work together to create the best solutions available.
The democracy of the Athenian State demanded that its citizens were not only voters, but also legislators. In contrast, no one expects the British public to provide the solution for Brexit. In 1955, Churchill argued that the first duty of a Member of Parliament is the “honor and safety of Great Britain,” the second to his constituents, and third to his party. Thus, the job falls to the politicians who we elected to steer the course for the country’s future. If they are wholeheartedly sure that Brexit is a horrible nightmare with unalterable consequences, let our MPs have the courage to stand up and say it themselves.
As Damocles swiftly learnt, the privilege of power is balanced by the burden of responsibility. And thus the politicians, and not the people, must bear the responsibility for Brexit. The “will of the people” will not be reinforced by holding another referendum, as it would be based no more upon reason or facts than the first. In our democracy, the “will of the people” is expressed in who we choose to elect, and it is high time that they fulfill their duties and work together in the interests of us all.