On Second Referendums

There are very few things which depress me more than the discourse around the idea of a second referendum on leaving the EU.

This is not, I should stress, because I have any opposition to the idea of remaining in the EU. Indeed, I am (with one possible exception) the person I know who feels most strongly that we should be in the EU. I believe that being in the EU is a necessary minimum not only for Britain’s economic prosperity (which is the argument most make) but to arrest the country’s descent into the depths of fascism, as well as to maintain peace in Western Europe.

(I realise all the ways in which the EU is flawed, but now isn’t the time to go over them. What I will say, though, is that I infinitely prefer working with flawed-but-existing institutions and pushing them into the directions I want, rather than trying to smash the institutions and hope something better will reconstitute itself from the rubble.)

Rather, I have several different problems with the idea of a second referendum, and specifically with the way in which it is being discussed.

First, of course, is my opposition to all referendums, ever, under any circumstances, which I have blogged about before. I think they’re fundamentally incompatible with representative democracy, and indeed the way in which the body politic has thrashed about in agony as a result of the self-inflicted wound of the last referendum tends to prove that. There’s simply no good argument for solving any problem by referendum.

(In this case the problem is that MPs are more concerned about keeping their own jobs than about actually *doing* those jobs. Personally I think that any MP who is so scared of losing their job that they’re prepared to go along with a course that they know to be disastrous for the country *should* lose their job, but that’s just me, and I believe in attempting to be competent when I do something. The supermajority of MPs clearly don’t).

Then there’s the problem of it being impossible in the time we have, as everyone who has paid any attention knows. It takes a year or so to get the legislation for even an *uncontroversial* referendum through Parliament. We have eight months until we leave the EU, and there are people in Parliament who would use every single trick available to delay the legislation. Realistically, for there to have been any prospect of a second referendum, it would have to have been legislated for at the same time that Article 50 was invoked. Everyone who’s paid any attention to this *knows* that, and the continued pretence by the majority of pseudo-Remain campaigners that the situation is any different is not going to help with the problem of people thinking all politicians are lying bastards.

And this goes into one of my other problems — the people who will undoubtedly be in charge of any Remain campaign. The main Remain campaigners are people who couldn’t make worse decisions if they were deliberately trying to lose. As just one obvious example, there was the appointment of Ryan Coetzee as Director of Strategy for the 2016 campaign. This is the same Ryan Coetzee who had been Director of Strategy for the Lib Dems in the years leading up to the 2015 General Election, and been responsible for their magnificent success in that election.

In particular, the pseudo-Remainers made one massive, massive, error in 2016 *after* the referendum, one which has never been properly acknowledged and which I think has totally destroyed any hope of them ever winning over the electorate — the 2016 Labour leadership election.

Whatever one’s own views of Jeremy Corbyn as a leader, it was a massive error to make Brexit the issue on which the leadership election between him and Owen Smith was fought. It meant that Labour supporters were forced into picking a side between Corbyn or remaining in the EU, despite the fact that it is possible to share almost all of Corbyn’s other political stances while thinking that the UK should stay in the EU. Had the pseudo-Remainers tried to work with, rather than against, Corbyn — even while dealing with the fact that he is markedly less enthusiastic than they about the EU — they could have got the large mass of enthusiastic pro-Corbyn activists in Labour to work with them on stopping Brexit.

Instead, they treated Brexit as less important than their own internal party battles, and drew battle lines making it a binary choice — supporting Corbyn and opposing the Blairite right of Labour meant supporting Brexit. And so two years after, with Corbyn’s place as Labour leader absolutely secure, we now have many hashtag FBPEers whose primary motive is opposing Corbyn, and many Corbynites who believe that the people campaigning to remain in the EU are, instead, really just anti-Corbyn campaigners.

(For the record, I have many problems with Corbyn, but with the exception of his opposing continued EU membership most of them are the opposite of those on the Labour right and the Lib Dem leadership — I think he’s too right-wing for my own tastes, and too ready to appease racists with anti-immigration policies. I also think that the Lib Dems made a huge, huge, tactical error in going hard with the anti-Corbyn attack lines in the 2017 election.)

And both the uselessness of the referendum campaign and the uselessness of the post-referendum pseudo-Remainers has been caused by the same problem that we are seeing over and over and over again in the last decade, one which has caused almost all the problems in British politics for years. This is a two-part problem — people with power continually overestimating the popularity of centrist political positions, and people with power deciding to try to play clever buggers when they’re nowhere near as clever as think they they are.

And we’re seeing this right now with the latest — and to my mind most dangerous — iteration of the pro-referendum campaign.

The current call is to have a three-option referendum, with whatever deal (if any) Theresa May manages to make with the EU, remain, and leave the EU without a deal as the three options in question.

The idea of this is to split the leave vote, and (if the referendum is run by AV as is being suggested) to capitalise on the fact that most “no deal” voters would not put a second preference while (the people arguing for this believe) the people voting to leave with the deal would probably put remaining as a second preference.

I think this is horribly, stupidly, misguided, and is playing Russian Roulette with Britain’s future, with five bullets in the gun.

Firstly, the lesson from the last referendum should have been very, very, clear — if you *do* insist on having referendums, don’t ever, ever, put an option on there that you’re not prepared to see happen. The “no deal” option would literally lead to famine in the UK within days. That’s not an exaggeration — it would lead to us losing forty percent of our food supply overnight. Giving people the chance to vote for famine is criminally irresponsible.

And I think it very, very likely that people *would* vote for famine. The fact is, most people in the UK simply haven’t paid any attention to the details of Brexit. They just assume it’s being sorted out. This is one reason there’s been no movement in the polls, outside the margin of error, since the referendum — most people genuinely don’t care. They made a choice at the last referendum because they were presented with a choice, and being presented with two options they naturally assumed that both options had roughly the same number of up- and down-sides to them. After all, “they” wouldn’t “let us” vote unless there was a real debate — even though anyone who spent any time investigating the issue saw that leaving the EU was not a sensible policy with a clear aim, but just a slogan for fascists and their libertarian-capitalist political kin.

Presenting the three options listed on a ballot would, again, make people think “well, there must be upsides and downsides to all of them, otherwise ‘they’ would just decide for us”. Most people would simply not believe — no matter how clear it was made — that one of the options on the ballot would lead to famine.

And we’re already seeing that the pseudo-Remain leaders are playing into the hands of those who want no deal, in anticipation of this referendum. Many, many prominent centrist politicians have, in a presumably co-ordinated way, put out the line that even no deal at all would be better than the deal that May is claiming to want to negotiate, and that what May is calling for is “the worst of both worlds”. This sets up a no-deal Brexit as having some positives which the current negotiating position does not have.

This is presumably intended as a tactical move to get the no-deal supporters on side for another referendum, but by making their argument for them these politicians are just conceding the rhetorical ground before the putative campaign has even started — they’re implicitly agreeing that leaving the EU without a deal, grounding all the UK’s planes, losing forty percent of our food supply, and destroying all current British industry, has some sort of positive aspect to it.

So, my predictions are simple: we will not have a second referendum, because there’s no time to legislate for one. But if, somehow, a miracle happened and one was called, on the current evidence the result would be that, just as every other time the thick bastards who make up the majority of our current political and media classes have tried to be super-clever and wished on a monkey’s paw, everything would end up even worse than it currently looks like being.

A second referendum *will* end up with a majority voting to leave the EU without a deal — and probably, shortly thereafter, when there are food riots on the streets, to the imposition of a fascist dictatorship. This is not me catastrophising, this is me trying to be as calm and logical as is possible.

If we had politicians who had the slightest sense of duty or understanding that their decisions actually have effects on people, we would currently be seeing rebellions on a massive scale in Parliament, but instead they’re using their calls for a referendum as an excuse to get out of actually scrutinising legislation and opposing the Government when (as it is now) it does the wrong thing.

So, in short, we’re fucked. In the unlikely event there is a second referendum I will put every effort into campaigning for Remain, but I have no doubt at all that we’d lose. I just wish there was a single politician in the whole of the UK who would stand up and say, clearly, “Brexit is a stupid idea, it can’t be done without massive damage, so we should stop it”.
But then, if we had decent politicians we wouldn’t be in this mess.

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9 Responses to On Second Referendums

  1. David Summers says:

    Andrew, I agree with every single word of this blog post, particularly your closing comments. I have spent the past two years hoping a core of sensible politicians would stand up and argue for a sensible non-partisan reconsideration, but sadly it’s not going to happen. Currently an ever-increasing number seem to be noisily detaching themselves from direct responsibility while allowing May to drive us over the metaphorical cliff. They would rather say “I would never have done it like this” afterwards than actually do anything to stop it happening in the first place. So it will happen. I used to feel that a nation gets the politicians it deserves, but no one deserves this lot.

  2. TAD says:

    According to my President, any country in the EU is my foe. And apparently Russia is everything that’s fluffy and good in this world.

  3. Scurra says:

    Yes to every single word of this. Cameron screwed it up, and then compounded his error by running away instead of standing firm and using the result as the chance to go to the EU and probably force another treaty round at the very least.
    But because he ran away, whoever took over was pretty much forced into doing what May had to do (i.e. initiate article 50 and create DeXEU) with no proper escape route.
    Now the fact that she managed to screw that up so spectacularly too (sure, a joint Tory-Labour DeXEU with, say, Davis and Starmer running it would have been a cat-fight but at least it would have acknoweldged that this wasn’t a party political thing) clearly doesn’t inspire any confidence that the current administration can do anything other than drive us over the edge.

    But a third referendum on this subject is simply a Baldrick-level idea.

  4. plok says:

    Huh, it’s almost like including a third choice that basically means “should we all just kill ourselves” doesn’t really add a third choice but just changes the meaning of the original option…so you technically have three choices now, but still only one option, only it’s no longer “do this/don’t do this”, it’s now “destroy yourselves/don’t destroy yourselves”. Votes on “don’t destroy yourselves” would then be split, while those for “just fucking end it” wouldn’t be.

    A perilous phrasing!

  5. LondonKdS says:

    Personally, I think the Labour right-wing needs to be confronted at every opportunity on how just about all the horrific developments since the 2010 election are the direct result of their behaviour and policies during the fourteen years they were in power: allowing the City irresponsibility and greed that led to the financial crisis; treating the traditional working classes with utter and open contempt; doing nothing to challenge and indeed actually supporting “scrounger” narratives on social security; persecuting asylum seekers, pandering to racists and xenophobes at every opportunity, and doing nothing to make the moral case for immigration openness, while being just self-righteously PC enough in their rhetoric to make it possible for racists to claim that they “weren’t allowed” to “tell the truth about race”…

    And there are few things that would do more to convince working-class people who vaguely follow politics that Remain is a smug London-based upper-middle-class plot than to allow D Milliband, Clegg and some random Tory to set themselves up as the “non-partisan” Remain figureheads.

  6. Mick Taylor says:

    All this talk of needing oodles of time to pass a referendum bill is cobblers. With the necessary political will (and there’s the rub) any bill can be got through parliament in a day. Of course the antis would scream and shout but if there ever was a majority in the Commons for a third referendum (it already exists in the Lords) they can scream and shout as much as they like.

  7. Mike Taylor says:

    I just wish there was a single politician in the whole of the UK who would stand up and say, clearly, “Brexit is a stupid idea, it can’t be done without massive damage, so we should stop it”.

    There’s Ken Clarke. See e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/05/ken-clarke-on-brexit-ive-never-seen-anything-as-mad-or-chaotic-as-this

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