What is more democratic?
by Matt Coot
In June 2016, 51.2% of the entire population of the UK took part in the most important vote of the nation’s recent history: do we remain as part of the European Union? We all know the outcome: 51.89% voted to leave and 48.11% voted to remain. A democratic decision showing that a slim majority of the nation wanted to leave the European Union. End of the story, right?
Well, not quite. On Friday, Owen Smith was sacked from the Labour front bench for speaking his own views on there needing to be a second referendum once the final deal has been finalised. This has also been the constant view of the Liberal Democrats since the referendum result. Is this just moaning from the losing side? No, it is actually a sensible democratic option that should be taken seriously.
Let’s first get the typical argument out of the way. People may argue that the first referendum was representative of just over half of the population, and that just over half of that electorate voted to leave. Therefore, these people may argue, the first referendum isn’t the nation speaking and that we should do the vote again! Well, no, you see if this was the only argument, I would be the first to stand up and defend the democratic voice that spoke on that fateful June day in 2016. Yes, 48.8% of the population didn’t vote in the election (that’s around 32 million people) but that isn’t any reason to have another referendum and I don’t think any of the political figures are arguing for a second referendum for that reason.
Another reason that people throw around is that people have changed their minds after the result. They realised the error of their ways and regretted the vote. This isn’t a genuine reason to hold a second referendum.
A second referendum isn’t a referendum for ‘remoaners’ who want to try to get another referendum that will show a different result. A second referendum is the sensible democratic solution to this situation that this country has found itself in.
“Nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate”
It is true that circumstances have changed. The referendum was only the start of the debate. We now know more than we did before. We are now a better informed electorate.
During the campaign prior to the vote, we were shown buses that declared that the country spends £350 million a week on our membership to the EU. The bus advert said that it should be spent on the NHS instead. This was a suggestion that many took as a promise: vote to leave and we will give £350 million a week to the NHS. Days after the vote, those responsible for these claims admitted that it probably wouldn’t happen. Instead, the Centre for Economic Policy Research has estimated that we, as a country, have lost £300 million a week because of the Brexit vote. We stand to lose a lot more as time goes on, with the Office for Budget Responsibility downgrading our growth expectations for the next five years and the Prime Minister agreeing to an EU exit bill which will cost between £35 billion and £39 billion.
We were told that we would “take back control” and “defend” our borders. These passionate declarations were given without any plan of how to actually do this, or with any evidence at all that we had lost control in the first place. In fact, the Bar Council (the legal representative body) has stated that the UK “has not given up sovereignty over the terms and applications of its own laws within the United Kingdom”. It did, however, explain that with the EU, the UK has a “pooled sovereignty”, which can be compared to that of membership to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). A former judge of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Sir David Edward, explained that the ECJ has no jurisdiction in the UK “other than to answer questions put to it by UK courts”. In fact, according to the Institute for Government, the UK has achieved the highest long-term rate of successful judgements out of all of the EU nations and has never been referred to the ECJ for a fine. We have never lost control of our country, our laws, or our sovereignty. We do not need to “take back control” because we are already in control.
As for defending our borders from immigration, 80% of EU migrants come into the UK with a firm job offer already in place, or actively looking for work, or to study. In fact, as argued in a previous article about the NHS, many of our industries and economy rely upon EU migrants. 62,000 nurses who work within the NHS originate from other EU nations. 80,000 nurses working in social care also originate from other EU nations. Who exactly are we defending our borders from? It seems like we are pushing away highly skilled workers who we desperately need.
There were people on both sides who told lies, some bigger than others, and both sides didn’t really prepare the public for what it would mean either way. However, it was quite obvious that it was the Leave campaign who had the most emphasis on an emotive ‘story’ to win the vote. They used fears, stereotypes, and false promises to encourage people to want to leave. We don’t have control! Yes we do. Our borders aren’t defended! Yes they are. We have too many immigrants! Who are coming here to work hard and save lives, but shall we talk about all the “expats” abroad…?
The decision we made in June 2016 was a binary choice: either leave the EU or remain in the EU. Nobody argued about the Northern Ireland border and we didn’t choose whether to have a hard border or not. We didn’t make a choice about the single market or the customs union. The Leave campaign argued about the money that could be spent on the NHS, but didn’t mention the thousands of NHS staff who would leave. They also didn’t mention that we would still be paying a massive amount in our ‘divorce’ from the EU. The fishery industry were misled by the Leave campaign, and now they’re upset with the deal that has been made. There are so many other examples, including how we are heading towards an economic crisis with our eyes closed and the mass exodus of businesses that has only just begun. Trade deals with other countries? If the past few weeks are anything to go by, that isn’t going to happen as easily as was argued during the campaign. The choice we made in June 2016 was a binary choice, but the decision should never have been a binary one. The decision we made was the start of the debate. A second referendum would be the end of that debate.
Two years after the referendum, and one year before the date that we are scheduled to leave the EU, and the Brexit negotiations aren’t yet over. However, we are closer to an understanding of what Brexit would mean. I am not talking about the soundbites that we’ve heard from the government: “Brexit means Brexit”; “red, white, and blue Brexit”, and the “bespoke economic partnership”. No, we know actual facts because the EU spokespeople aren’t as reserved as the Tory government over what their red lines are. For example, we know that if this country isn’t in the single market and customs union, then there will be a hard border for Northern Ireland (which nobody wants). We are also aware of so much more than we were before the referendum vote. Time has given us clarity. Time has pushed through the emotive stories and given us cold, hard facts. We now know the long-term effects that Brexit will have on this country – and if we don’t know, then we have proper experts who do know. Not politicians spouting crap. No, we actually have experts who know what the long-term effects will be. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty.
However, despite my opinions on what Brexit will mean, the fact that we have more facts is important. It means that this nation is a well-informed electorate. A better informed electorate than we were in June 2016. When the negotiations have come to an end, we will know for certain what the final deal will be. We will have those cold, hard facts. We didn’t have these before the referendum, because nobody wanted to start negotiating a potential end to the membership of the EU if there wasn’t the real chance that we would leave. But, the referendum was the nation’s voice saying “we give you permission to start the negotiations. We want to leave. Begin the negotiations”. So, that’s what our representatives started to do. It wasn’t the loud voices of Nigel Farage, David Cameron, and Paul Dacre (editor of the Daily Mail) who would be negotiating, but rather those who stuck around and accepted responsibility when the proverbial hit the fan. And now, the negotiations are nearing an end. We will soon have the exact details of what leaving the EU will mean for the UK. Do we leave this decision with those who have a political (and potentially personal financial) agenda? If Parliament are granted a vote on the deal, then this would be 0.00099% of the population deciding on an issue that is far too important to leave in just their hands. It is this kind of issue that referendums were made for, and therefore, there should be a second referendum for deciding on whether the people of this country want to accept or deny the deal, and whether to proceed or to change our mind about the Brexit vote. And why is this important? Because we are a better informed electorate now than we were in June 2016.
People try to argue that a second referendum isn’t respecting democracy. But, here’s the thing that I just can’t get my head around: why is asking the public a question again not respecting democracy? Why is asking the nation to tell the politicians what they want not respecting democracy? Isn’t democracy all about the electorate making a choice? We don’t just vote once and then forevermore be stuck with the same parliament and government. No, we vote and then a few years later, we vote again. If we’ve changed our mind due to new information or experiences, then the vote changes. This is democracy in action. So, how exactly is a second referendum non-democratic? It is the most democratic thing that could happen in this situation! What is more democratic: asking the population once, with limited information, and acting on the decision; or asking the population once, at the start of a debate, and for a second time, at the end of the debate, before acting on the decision? It is obviously more representative of a democratic society to ask a second time once all the information has been given.
However, I do hear those shouting “but it disrespects the will of the people!”. My response to you is simple: no it doesn’t. The will of the people showed the government that we wanted to leave our membership of the European Union. We have, since then, been given more information about exactly what this will mean. We have respected the will of the people, but we need to know if the majority of the electorate still believe that the right choice is to leave. We need to have a second referendum to respect democracy and to respect the people of this nation and the nations in the European Union. We must vote again.
I also hear those who are saying that a second referendum would be opening up a dangerous precedent of votes not being permanent. That a second will lead to a third, and the third lead to a fourth, etc. That we will have never-ending referendums on our membership of the European Union. This is scaremongering rubbish. As I’ve already argued: the first referendum was the start of the debate, the second referendum would be the end of the debate. No matter what, this second referendum would be final.
Why would the second referendum be final? Why wasn’t the first? Because, as I’ve argued, we have more information now. We are a better informed electorate. It is the end.
(I hope you don’t mind me repeating a few points there, I just know how difficult it is to persuade people who are against a second referendum. I can guarantee that the above arguments will still be sent to me, despite my answers being in this article. Just stop me from hitting my head against a brick wall.)
Anyway, I digress, another argument against a second referendum seems to be that it will reopen, or deepen, the divides that the first referendum created. Not just in politics, but also in our communities. I don’t think this is the case. Yes, divides occurred. It showed that the traditional age of politics was over and that our nation’s politics is much more diverse – as are our communities. This is a good thing. The referendum also engaged the population in politics and political issues. This, again, is a good thing.
However, I agree that the divides shown could be managed better during the second referendum. Instead of allowing emotive stories to lead the media and public, the politicians need to present the cold, hard, facts of the matter. They need to explore the actual facts and what the actual effects will be on the nation. They need to persuade the nation why it is right to either remain or to leave, based on facts. We need a more ‘grown up’ debate. That way, a well-informed electorate will go to the polling stations and mark their voting slip with their opinion on what this nation needs to do. We will then have a final decision based on facts and knowledge, not on emotive lies and guesswork.
Democracy is the “rule of the people”. In 2015, the electorate made a democratic decision that the Tories should remain in government, that the Lib Dems should be punished for their role in the coalition government, and that Labour should lose a massive number of seats too, and that the SNP should have more seats in Parliament. In 2017, the electorate made another democratic decision that the Tories remain in government – but with a reduced majority; that Labour gain a huge number of seats; that SNP lose a huge number of seats; and that the Lib Dems gain a few. Two years after the democratic decision of what the House of Commons should look like, the public voted again and changed their mind. The rule of the people. The democratic decision in June 2016 was that the UK should leave the European Union. Why not have another democratic decision two years later? Let the people decide, again.