Brexiteers are running scared of democracy

here were, I would say, more members of the National Trust than the Socialist Workers’ Party at the People’s Vote march in London on Saturday. It was not a typical protest rally. Many of the 700,000 men, women and children who gathered to demand another Brexit referendum were at their first demonstration. They had babies in prams and Royal Horticultural Society bags along with their home-made banners. Although the sneerers described it as “the longest Waitrose queue in history” there were plenty of Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s customers too. This was not some kind of croissant-eating metropolitan liberal elite, but middle England, pouring in by coaches and trains from across the country with home-made sandwiches. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn should be worried — there were voters there from all political parties. Tony Blair’s reputation never recovered from ignoring the hundreds of thousands of people who protested against the war in Iraq.

Mrs May is facing yet another leadership crisis this week, still unable to corral her cabinet let alone her backbenchers or the EU behind her Brexit plan. With every day that passes, the likelihood of parliamentary deadlock, and so the prospect of a second referendum, increases. The civil service is said to be making contingency plans for another vote and several ministers privately admit that it might be the only way of resolving an almighty mess. According to a YouGov poll at the weekend, significantly more people back a “people’s vote” than either Mrs May’s deal or no deal. So it is time for those who favour a new Brexit poll to take seriously the genuine concerns about the political consequences of holding one.

There are constitutional questions about whether MPs will ever get the chance to vote for another referendum — in reality if Mrs May’s deal is rejected by the House of Commons, or if she cannot get a deal, then there would be such a political crisis that the Speaker would find a way. The question on the ballot paper would depend on the outcome of the negotiation, and the parliamentary vote, but it could be a choice between the prime minister’s deal and staying in the EU, or between no deal and Remain. The Electoral Commission would have a role in determining the question to ensure it was both clear and fair.

The more important objection is that holding another referendum would further undermine trust in democracy at a time when it is already dangerously low. The “people’s vote” name — in one way a clever piece of branding — plays into this criticism because “the people” did already vote in 2016. But a new referendum would not be a re-run of the old one. It would be a chance to look for the first time at a clearly defined Brexit and decide whether or not it was in the national interest. In its Independent Commission on Referendums, the UCL Constitution Unit concluded that popular votes “work best when held at the end of the democratic process to choose between developed alternatives”. This was certainly not the case in 2016, when voters were encouraged to project whatever they wanted onto a Leave vote in order to “take back control”. It would now be possible for the electorate to make an informed choice.

There are also warnings that a second referendum would fuel the rise of the populist right. The far greater danger, though, is that Brexit happens and fails to deliver the change that people hoped for, creating a sense of betrayal among Leave voters. The extra £350 million a week for the NHS has already been exposed as a fantasy and there is unlikely to be a dramatic fall in the number of immigrants after the UK leaves the EU because business, agriculture and the care sector are so dependent on foreign workers. Brexit will not boost the number of affordable homes, school places or hospital beds. In fact, the economic impact, which the government’s own impact assessment found would be greatest in Leave-voting areas, could make it more difficult to address the anger and anxiety about wage stagnation, job insecurity and inequality. The closure of car factories, combined with a new round of multi-million pound bank bonuses in a deregulated post-Brexit City of London, would give a much greater boost to the extremists than another EU referendum.

Downing Street argues that a second referendum would be about “politicians telling the people they got it wrong the first time“ but in fact it would be the result of a failure by the political class. The ideological certainties of the Tory Eurosceptics are now running up against reality over Brexit.

The country is as divided as ever and, instead of trying to heal the splits exposed by the EU referendum, the prime minister made them worse, alienating the 48 per cent who had voted Remain by railing against the “citizens of the world” and setting out a series of impossible red lines. A generational divide has also opened up, with younger people, who will have to live with the consequences of Brexi, overwhelmingly opposed to what they see as a future that is being imposed on them. If there is no referendum at the end of the process it is hard to see how these tensions will now be resolved.

Indeed, Brexiteers including Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave director, used to argue for a second referendum themselves in an attempt to minimise the risk of a Brexit vote. Now Mr Cummings issues dire warnings to Remainers that “Vote Leave 2 will be much, much worse for your side than VL1 was”, writing in his blog: “At a minimum VL2 will win the referendum and destroy the strategic foundations of both main parties . . . The rotten civil service system will be replaced and the performance of government will be transformed for the better.” This is exactly what he wants to happen so you have to wonder why he is so scared of another vote.

Democracy is not static. Voters must be able to change their minds. Those campaigning for a second referendum are denounced as “liberal sore losers” who are trying to overturn the 2016 result but all they want is for the people to be given a say on the actual Brexit plan. They may choose to Leave on those terms. If the Brexiteers were really confident about their revolution they should welcome the chance to win the endorsement of the electorate. The fact they do not is itself an argument to give the people the power to make a choice. There are no perfect options at the end of this tortuous process but as Winston Churchill said, democracy is “the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried.”

Rachel Sylvester

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