Why we need a second Brexit vote: First law of politics is people can change their minds
PUBLISHED: 06:46 16 March 2017 | UPDATED: 07:12 16 March 2017
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People can, and regularly do, change their minds. The public should be given that option once the Brexit deal is done.
The referendum was lost – and badly. All around people were shaking their heads, wondering what would happen next, aghast at their sense that the future had come to a full stop.
Some were already cursing the television for giving them the wrong result. Many were heading for home. Now they were in shock. Later, they would move through the standard stages of adjustment to loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, distraction. Some would, eventually, move on to acceptance. The process did not necessarily occur in that order. Others refused to give up hope.
The year was 1979. The referendum on whether Wales should have an elected Assembly was lost by four to one. Eighteen years later, Wales reversed its vote, by a whisker, after years of a London government which had gutted industries central to the Welsh sense of identity like mining and steel-making.
In 2011, in a third referendum, the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly to endorse a stronger Assembly. People can change their minds. It should be the first law of politics.
A week after the referendum last June, I visited the Viking Museum at Roskilde in Denmark. The museum houses a long-ship built near Dublin in 1042 by Scandinavian boat-builders. It’s a reminder that links across our continent, forged in war but also by trade, have centuries-old roots that pre-date the era of modern capitalism.
Ireland and Denmark also have pointers for us when it comes to referendums. In Denmark, two referendums were held before the treaty of Maastricht passed.
Just before the Danish football team headed to victory in the 1992 Euros, Danish voters rejected Maastricht by a small majority. Denmark then negotiated four opt-outs from portions of the treaty. The second referendum in 1993 approved the treaty with the opt-outs.
In 2001 Ireland rejected the Treaty of Nice. After clear statements confirming that Ireland would not have to join a common defence policy and affirming the right of Irish parliamentarians to decide on enhanced cooperation, a second referendum the following year approved the Treaty.
Referendums don’t always mean slavish acceptance without further negotiation or debate, as these three examples prove:
French European Constitution referendum, 2005
The French chose not to ratify the proposed Constitution of the European Union. But a change in president and political direction and a rewritten version was passed as part of the Lisbon Treaty. No second vote was held.
Irish Lisbon Treaty referenda, 2008/09
Initially the proposals were rejected by a slim margin because of fears over several issues including Ireland’s military neutrality and rules on abortion. But, once opt outs were agreed on the more contentious issues, a year later the public went to the polls again and 68% voted to ratify the treaty.
The Danish Maastricht Treaty referenda, 1992/3
With just a tiny majority the No vote triumphed in the first round of voting for ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in Denmark. A year later – with a new deal on issues including defence and justice – Danes changed their minds with 57% voting to back the proposals.
Ireland called a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008 – and again their voters rejected it the first time around. After that the Council of Ministers agreed a statement that other member states would not use the Treaty to reduce the number of permanent commissioners in favour of a rotating system with fewer commissioners, nor threaten Ireland’s military neutrality and rules on abortion. Following that, Ireland voted in favour of the treaty in 2009.
People can change their minds.
Here in Wales, it’s not been an easy time for the Welsh Government. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Government, able to demonstrate that Scotland voted to remain, the Welsh Government has a relatively weak hand to play. The people of Wales rejected the advice of the two political parties that dominate the national assembly, Welsh Labour and the main opposition party, the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, and joined England in voting to leave the EU.
Arguably then the Welsh vote was an anti-establishment vote. The Leave message had a clear appeal in post-industrial areas – former mining or steel-producing areas which had lost jobs to globalisation, white working-class areas which have lots of “left behind” voters. These areas have suffered the impact of austerity policies over the last six years – and it has been Labour councils which have had to implement the cuts imposed by Westminster.
While unusually the word sovereignty was heard on the doorsteps, expressed as a desire “to take back control”, in the language of the Leave campaign, the biggest driver of the Brexit message was immigration, in Wales as in England.
Immigration, of course, was a proxy for a variety of other fears – about pressures on public services and the alleged under-cutting of wages, about the insecurities of change driven by globalisation – and was ruthlessly exploited by the Leave campaign who said that immigration levels could not be controlled within the EU.
Throughout the referendum campaign, activists for Remain had stressed the benefits Wales gets from Europe. Independent analysis by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre showed that Wales is a net beneficiary of the EU: in 2014 the net benefit to Wales of being in the EU was £245 million, or £79 per person.
More than £2 billion for farming and the countryside had been destined for Wales in the 2014-2020 period, and a further £2 billion plus in cohesion funding for the poorest areas of the country – including areas which voted most heavily to Leave. Business in Wales, as in the UK overall, including companies such as Airbus and Toyota, was firmly in support of the Remain campaign.
In January, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Labour first minister, who heads the Welsh Government, published a white paper ‘Securing Wales’s Future’, along with the leader of Plaid Cymru, setting out Welsh demands for the negotiations over Brexit. The paper sought to reconcile concerns about immigration with membership of the single market. It set out six key areas:
• The importance of continued participation in the single market to support businesses and secure jobs and the future prosperity of Wales
• A balanced approach to immigration linking migration to jobs and good properly-enforced employment practice which protects all workers whatever their country of origin
• The need for the UK Government to make good on promises made during the referendum campaign that Wales would not lose funding as a result of the UK leaving the EU
• A fundamentally different constitutional relationship between the devolved governments and the UK Government – based on mutual respect, reaching agreement through consent
• Maintaining the social and environmental protections, in particular workers’ rights, once these are no longer guaranteed through the UK’s membership of the EU
• Proper consideration of transitional arrangements if longer-term arrangements have not been agreed at the point of exit from the EU.
But sadly Theresa May has already ruled out UK membership of the single market, and has projected the alternative of a “no-deal” Brexit – a low tax Singapore-style option – which sounds the absolute opposite of the Welsh Government’s demands for continued social and environmental protections.
I understand the Welsh Government’s position, and were I still in the National Assembly, I would be loyally supporting what it says. But speaking for myself, I’m not in favour of a better Brexit. I’m a Brejectionist.
Cardiff, the city where I was born, and where I now teach, voted 60% to 40% to remain. I passionately believe that the vote to leave the EU is fundamentally damaging to the future of Wales. I applaud the Members of Parliament from Wales who voted against the commencement of Article 50. They speak for me, and for a lot of other people.
After all, you don’t give up on democracy because you lose an election. And you don’t give up on your principles because you lose a referendum. As Ireland and Denmark have shown us, you argue. You organise. You persuade. You campaign.
People can change their minds. As Tony Blair said recently: “Our mission is to persuade them to do so.”
Remember, if the vote had gone the other way on a similar margin, Nigel Farage and his ilk would be campaigning now for a second referendum.
After the referendum last year I argued for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations to be put to the people in a further vote. This would be a vote on whether the Brexit terms are better than the status quo of current membership.
That’s a real choice, a meaningful choice.
It would be a vote on a concrete set of proposals, and people would have to decide whether that is better than what we have at present.It would force people to engage with the detail. It would force the media to interrogate the real choice on offer.
It would be an honest position, and a definitive position. If the people endorse the negotiated Brexit position, then we would be out.
If they didn’t, then that would be an absolute recognition that the terms of departure are worse than what we have now.
Shouldn’t the people be given a real choice on the actual outcome, not the dishonest promises and unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – fantasies of the Leave campaign?
After all, people can change their minds. In Wales, we’ve seen it happen before.
Leighton Andrews is professor of public service leadership and innovation at Cardiff Business School, a former minister in the Welsh Government and a former elected member of the National Assembly for Wales.