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The cast-iron case for a second vote: Why second referendums hold the establishment to account

More than 100,000 attended the June 2018 anti-Brexit march in central London. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Critics of a People’s Vote are looking at it the wrong way around, says Matt Qvortrup, a man described by the BBC as ‘the world’s leading authority on referendums’

We are, according to Michael Gove, fed up with experts. So perhaps I should not admit that I know more about referendums than might be considered good for me. I have written eight books on the subject. I have worked on several referendum campaigns. This of course does not give me a monopoly on wisdom. But I think it does give me the knowledge to be able to say with conviction that a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, far from being anti-democratic, would be the exact opposite… an act of true democracy.

I call as my first witness an expert far more renowned than I, or indeed Mr Gove, namely the great constitutionalist Albert Venn Dicey. He wrote, a century ago, that ‘the referendum is the people’s veto’, and his words are as wise today as they were then. Ever since, the argument for the referendum has been that the people ought to have a final say on ‘great and important issues of the day’, as Dicey put it. There can be few greater or more important issues facing Britain right now, than the chaos that the referendum of June 23, 2016 – called less for Dicey’s reasons and more for David Cameron’s short-term political problems – has created.

Those arguing for Brexit whatever the impact on the country say that anything else would be to ignore democracy. Far from it. Indeed, it follows logically from what I say above that there must be a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. It is not having one that would be undemocratic.

This is not just a theoretical conclusion from an academic ivory tower; it is also the natural conclusion drawn from the past usage of the institution. Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Switzerland and Canada are some of the most democratic countries in the world. All have had second referendums, in the first three cases on the result of renegotiated deals with the European Union.

Today, Brexiters like to argue that this was all about ‘the establishment’ getting the result they failed to get first time around. Far from it. It is precisely to provide the voters with the aforementioned ‘people’s veto’ that such second referendums are held, with outcomes that strengthen rather than weaken the democracies concerned.

Often, the outcome of the first referendum is a narrow result on a relatively low turnout. In Ireland, in 2001, 53% voted against the EU’s Nice Treaty on a 34% turnout. The Irish voters were concerned that the new settlement could affect the country’s cherished neutrality. The Irish were given the assurances they needed, and, a year later, 62% of the voters, endorsed the revised treaty on a 62% turnout.

The same was true in Denmark. I worked on the second Danish referendum in 1992. Of course many people I spoke to remained in exactly the same position from one campaign to another. But many did not. As facts changed, views changed. As polling day approached, I talked to people who said, for example, that the securing of opt-outs on the euro had made them switch their vote, and they pronounced it to be ‘very democratic’ that they could have that opportunity to change their mind. As in Ireland, the second vote produced a bigger majority, on a bigger turnout. 50.7% voted ‘nej’ (no) to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992; a year later, 56.7% voted for the same treaty – on a turnout that was three percent higher.

The result was, indeed ‘very democratic’. The people, not the so-called elites, ought to have a final say over great and irreversible changes, which is exactly what happened.

The same logic applies in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum. And many Brexiters know this – though some seem to have (conveniently) forgotten their previous utterances.

I call as my second witness Boris Johnson, who in early 2016 suggested that a ‘double referendum’ was necessary in the event of a Leave outcome.

Brexiters are keen to tell us why the ‘people’ voted Leave, the reasons usually coinciding with their own viewpoint. None of us can say for sure why millions vote as they do, but the fact of the matter is that most leavers did not vote for a hard Brexit. They were assured by Boris Johnson that, ‘EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says ‘no”.

That assurance must be honoured. That is only fair, reasonable – and democratic.

The voters voted Leave because they believed there was something better on offer. Some were perhaps convinced by Johnson’s’ (in this case) accurate reflections on previous referendums in Denmark and Ireland.

The outcome of the Brexit negotiations will provide an opportunity of what the then Mayor of London called a ‘double referendum’. It is not a re-run of the first one, because it will be a vote on actual practical implications, all too absent from the debate in June 2016.

Some people, sadly including some in the country’s main opposition party leadership, continue to suffer from the delusion that a second referendum is undemocratic. Shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner recently told the BBC Today programme that calls for another vote undermined ‘the whole principle of democracy in this country’.

It is difficult to think of a more profound misunderstanding of the principle of democracy. It is precisely because of Dicey’s definition of the referendum as a people’s veto, the right to support or refuse to support acts of enormous change, that true democracy demands a People’s Vote when the negotiations are over.

The principle of British democracy, as it has evolved, is that the people are the masters. Parliament has been promised a ‘meaningful vote’ but for the decision to be democratically legitimate, on such a huge change, the final say must rest with the electorate.

Gardiner said that more than 80% voted for parties that supported Brexit at the last election. True. But that does not mean they all supported Brexit. There are many factors involved in a general election. Many, for example, voted Labour to prevent Theresa May succeeding in her stated aim of the election – a huge mandate for a hard Brexit.

The problem with pure representative democracy is that we tend to vote for the party we disagree the least with. Political scientists have found that we tend to disagree with 30% of the policies of our preferred party. The referendum is there, to be used rarely, for correcting, perfecting and complementing parliamentary democracy.

Just take one example. Thirty per cent of SNP voters are actually opposed to Scottish independence. It was in realisation of this that Alex Salmond accepted a referendum before Scottish independence. A simple majority in the Scottish parliament was not sufficient, as the Scottish nationalists had previously believed. The SNP accepted that a referendum was legitimate, and necessary for such a huge change.

It is for the same reason we must have a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Anything other than a plebiscite would be profoundly undemocratic. Of course, the real reason many Brexiters – including Johnson – have changed their mind has got nothing to do with principle, and everything to do with naked opportunism.

So much has happened in the past two years and there is little doubt that some people are changing their mind according to the changing facts. The divorce bill. The NHS money that is not materialising. The ‘easiest trade deal in history’ turning out to be anything but. The talk of stockpiling food and medicine, and grounded aviation. The seeming inability to resolve the question of the border in Ireland. The divisions at the heart of government. Many who voted to leave the European Union have woken up to these ‘facts’, and have altered their opinions accordingly.

It is profoundly anti-democratic to argue that opinion can never change, that the ‘will of the people’ is static or fixed. It is fear that the voters may reject Brexit – a fear of democracy – that drives the Brexiters to claim democracy as their ally. The most recent poll show that Remain enjoys a six per cent leave over Leave.

Of course, the prime minister says there will not be a second referendum. And Jeremy Corbyn, on a recent visit to Scotland, said: ‘There are no plans for anyone to hold a second referendum.’ But this position could soon change.

May has shown she can change her mind, not least over her oft-stated insistence there would be no snap election, a big factor in the current mess. Corbyn does not like to change his mind. But something is going to have to give between the Gardiner view, and the overwhelming support among Labour members for a People’s Vote on the final deal. And Corbyn is coming under increasing pressure to support a second referendum.

For him, such a shift would be politically sensible. More importantly, however, it is democratically right. The more the Brexiters claim ‘democracy’ as their key argument, the more we need to understand it is an argument they know they are losing.

Matt Qvortrup is professor of political science at Coventry University. His most recent book Government by Referendum is published by Manchester University Press

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