Brexit and the second referendum
This week, the British Parliament is due to hold a series of votes on Brexit — but few expect progress toward agreement. Britain is due to exit the European Union at the end of the month, but there is no sign of an agreement that could pass through Parliament before the deadline. This means politicians on all sides of the debate have been looking for a way to avoid the looming “hard exit,” including the possibility of another referendum.
The proposal for a second referendum became significantly more realistic when the Labour Party backed it in late February. Yet the politics are still difficult. Here is what is happening.
There’s support for a second referendum — but big problems, too
Some polls show voters want a chance to vote again. However, a second referendum would be far from a panacea. Regardless whether a second vote endorsed remaining in the E.U. or an exit, it would be bitterly contested if it were close. It is not clear that opponents would see any outcome as legitimate. Another close vote to leave would not necessarily make it easier to figure out how to exit the E.U. A lot would depend on how the second vote was conducted, timed, organized and worded.
Some object to a second vote on principle
Brexiteers argue a second referendum is undemocratic. In 2017, Conservative and Labour members of Parliament ran for office on a promise to respect the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote. Many would see a second referendum as a betrayal.
The logic behind their position is the idea that referendums are supposed to reach a definitive decision. Although elections for representatives should be regularly repeated, giving voters opportunities to throw the bums out, popular votes should not. This would furthermore suggest a referendum on questions of national sovereignty should be binding and legitimate. The reason that such referendums are held is often because the question is too important or contested to be decided by delegates. Controversial outcomes follow from controversial questions. That elites don’t like the outcome does not mean it is illegitimate.
Once the sovereign status quo has been altered through a popular vote, it is uncommon for another to be organized. In some cases, there have been repeated referendums on sovereignty issues. Quebec’s leader famously promised “À la prochaine fois!” (until the next time!) in 1980 after losing a vote on the province’s independence. Quebec did organize another vote in 1995. Puerto Rico has voted on its sovereign status five times since 1967.
Votes that fail to alter the status quo may be rerun. This is often by design. Giving voters future opportunities to test whether there is still support for the Union in future referendums, for instance, is a feature of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement. However, this is not the same as holding referendums until you get the right result.
But some argue the Brexit referendum was illegitimate
Proponents of a second referendum argue the 2016 vote was not legitimate, that people voted without understanding the likely outcome, or both. They make a variety of different claims as to why these might be so. The Electoral Commission found that the Vote Leave campaign violated campaign finance laws. Brexit is endangering peace in Northern Ireland, a problem that received very little discussion in the run-up to the vote. Promises made by the Leave campaign haven’t turned out as predicted. People voted to leave the E.U. in ignorance. Perhaps, it is only after negotiations with the E.U. on how to exit and the shape of the future relationship that U.K. voters could answer that frequently googled question: What is Brexit?
From this perspective, referendums can be used to bridge a gap between complex, private negotiations and public decision-making. Peace processes and constitutional drafting often require controversial interlocking compromises that legislatures don’t like to pass. If Parliament can’t pass any plausible deal, a referendum on May’s plan might be the only alternative to a hard exit.
In peace processes, referendums held at various stages of negotiation can push the process along. While making peace with Algeria, France held popular votes on whether to negotiate and whether to accept the outcomes of talks. Under this logic, repeated referendums provide voters with the democratic ability to shape decisions and indeed change their minds as circumstances change.
It would be hard to craft a new referendum
There is controversy over whether the original Brexit vote was free and fair, but there would also be bitter debate over any new one. There is not enough time to hold a vote before March 29. There is not even enough time to organize a good referendum process if the E.U. granted May an extension on Article 50. Before one could start to organize a new vote, Parliament would have to pass new legislation and reach agreement on what question(s) to ask. It might be possible to include supermajority or turnout requirements for any second referendum, so that more than a simple majority would be needed to win the vote. If things went wrong, another campaign might lead to further polarization, attract foreign interference and further destabilize Britain’s political parties.
Even if some connect referendums like Brexit with the upsurge in populism, there is no necessary link. When direct democracy is well-managed, populism is, too, my research suggests. States like France and Italy have had long populist traditions and histories with direct democracy but are innovating new mechanisms of direct democracy while grappling with populism. In contrast, states with weaker traditions of direct democracy have experienced quicker growth in powerful populist politics. This suggests that the details of referendum organizing are important. If a second referendum is organized, campaigns aimed at increasing public understanding and a clear ballot question that will yield an unambiguous result may dampen contestation over the result, even if they are highly unlikely to eliminate it.
Katy Collin (@KatyCollin) is an instructor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service whose research focuses on the use of referendums in peace processes.