When I attended my local Brexit hustings in the lead up to the Brexit vote, I got to ask a question. My question was ‘Would there be a second referendum when the terms of Brexit are clear?
The answer from the UKIP / Vote Leave representative was actually very interesting. They said that firstly referenda are very bad ways of establishing public opinion. They then went on to say that a second referendum would not be necessary as there will be a a civil discussion and that the UK parliament will ultimately make a decision reflecting the kind of Brexit that there is consensus for. I was surprised by this response as it was one I agreed with.
Two and a half years later, there is still much debate about a second referendum in the UK. The argument for a second referendum has strengthened largely because the conditions given above for not having one were breached. The Tory government aided by the Brexiteers both within and outside the Tory party stifled debate in the public sphere and in Parliament. Effectively the Tory government said that it would do its own Brexit and not listen to any outside voices. That method has itself been unsuccessful as the Tories are divided amongst themselves. Theresa May is lauded as successful in holding her her own party together by kicking every decision into the long grass. However as the clock ticks down on the Article 50 countdown, some decision has to be made and time is literally running out. There are calls for a second referendum simply to halt Brexit, not to re-run the 2016 referendum or for remain to win, but simply that this whole mess needs stopping and for the UK to start again on the process of working out exactly what it wants. If only more leave voters would wake up and realise that tit has been the Tory government who have betrayed the referendum.
However a second referendum may not happen as the two leaders of the traditional Right and Left wing blocs don’t want a second referendum. Partly this is because they fear the populist reaction of a feeling of democracy being betrayed, partly that Corbyn (Labour leader) is putting his ideological objection to the EU before the country and May (Tory leader) is putting party before country.
The Brexit referendum was an historic event, that after 40 odd years, finally the people of the UK were given a say on the relationship between the UK and the EU. However it is wrong to place so much weight on one arbitrary binary referendum as there needs to be much more democracy and genuine engagement with the electorate on how the UK is to be run. I have sympathy with this idea of a democratic betrayal with a second referendum. However, for me Brexit represented a call for more democracy not less, that it should be the start of democratic reform and not an end point. The debate has been hijacked by the hardcore Brexiteers and Remoaners, which has stifled genuine debate and calls for reform of UK democracy
How did UK politics get to this position?
I believe the issue is that democracy has failed. Professional party politics have got too good at controlling the media and winning elections and success for themselves, rather than for democracy or the ‘good of the country’. Legacy parliamentary systems produce big broad church Left and Right blocs. Recently there has been consensus on the way to win elections is to appeal to the centre ground, to the voters inbetween the ideological divides of the blocs. Blairism was the peak manifestation of this, where policy was advocated purely for populist appeal to the centre ground, even if they were bad policies and nothing at all to do with centrist ideology at all. For example PFI (the Private Finance Initiative, or paying taxpayers money to the rich). PFI, coming from the Labour party, looked like an acceptance of an increased role for capital in the economy. It was a very expensive thing to do for the economy, just to make the Labour party seem ‘electable’. Yet it worked, Blair won a landslide election victory.
However since the global financial crisis of 2008. There has been a growing mistrust of the political establishment. Even though the political establishment only acted so to appeal to popular sentiment. What we have seen in recent elections, and the UK is merely part of a general Western trend of an abandonment of appealing to the centre to winning elections by an appeal to the wings. Hence ideological Left wing and Right wing groups have had more success, this is seen in the USA and across Europe, just look at tonight’s Swedish election results.
The worrying thing about this is that no lessons have been learned, people are merely voting for populism in a different way, there is not more democracy or better decision making policy wise. The upshot of this is that political parties and individuals no longer try to appeal by being moderate, quite the opposite. Trump being a prime example, he makes no attempt to appeal to the Left as Left leaning people are unlikely to vote for him anyway, no attempt to try to build an argument for his causes, it has made sense for people like Trump to garner support from Right wing leaning people with populist appeals to emotion and not reason. Both Left and Right leaning people have also been disenfranchised by the previous appeals to the centre and never getting any good Right or Left ideas onto the statute book. This process of instead works by instead of producing a consensus, it divides society as parties succeed by getting enough of their natural vote out, however ideologically extreme such voters maybe, rather than trying to win a single argument or gain a single convert by the power of reason.
We just need radical reform of our democracies, to make them work as there were originally intended to: to produce politicians who were capable of making good decisions for the people they represent and the general economy, which is their job description, which they largely fail to do. They should represent all and not just those who voted for them or people like them and seek arguments to present to those that disagree, to make a case for doing a particular thing. There are no easy solutions to this problem, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Having a second referendum and then making sure we have a functional democracy afterwards, which was the most powerful argument for Brexit, is believe the thing to do now.