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Opinion: How could a second Brexit referendum be undemocratic?

Changing your course of action based on your circumstances is considered common sense for individuals, companies, and governments, so why should Brexit be any different?

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

AS THE DEADLINE for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union approaches, there are increasing calls for a second referendum on the question of Brexit.

In light of this, and given the fact that the Irish public is regularly asked to vote on constitutional matters, it is worth exploring whether a referendum should ever be re-run and if so, by what criteria do we decide when second votes are justified?

The idea that the public should be entrusted to make major decisions stems from the French Revolution. Supporters believed that if the people were consulted on an issue in the form of a referendum, then the ‘general will’ of the nation would manifest itself, the majority of people would naturally choose what was best for the public, and as such, the ‘right’ decision would always be made.

This largely represents the argument of those who insist that a second Brexit referendum cannot be held. The people have spoken, they say, and there can be no going back, come what may.

This is also the position of the British prime minister herself. May has claimed that a second vote “would break faith with the British people” because it will send a message that “our democracy does not deliver.”

It seems to be something of a paradox to say that too much democracy would be undemocratic. The entire basis of modern democracy is that the people are consulted on a regular basis.

When we vote to form a government in a general election, we do so on the understanding that we can evaluate its performance, usually over a few years. The electorate will then be consulted again and is free to change its mind. On principle, how is that any different to holding a second Brexit vote?

In 2015, May’s Conservative Party was given a mandate by the British public to govern for five years. Yet May called an early general election in 2017 solely because she believed that her premiership and her party stood to gain enormously from it.

When we think of May’s decision to call that snap  election in the U.K. the hypocrisy of her concern not to “break faith with the British people” is laid bare

May thought she saw an open goal, but in the end, scored an own goal, and in the process tightened the political garrote she finds herself trapped within today.

Why is the idea, of giving the voting public a chance to change its mind, so problematic?

Reevaluating and changing course are considered common sense for individuals, companies, and governments. What is so special about a referendum that the same logic cannot apply?

Frankly, there are probably very few people who oppose second referendums on principle. Rather than being a point of principle, it seems that most people think a second referendum is a good idea when their side lost the initial vote and a bad idea when the opposite is true.

The U.K. voted to remain in the E.U. in 1975. By having a vote on the question again in 2016, was this not “breaking faith” with the British public who already decided the question?

Of course, you could argue that was different because of the amount of time that passed between the two votes. Fair enough. But how much time has to go by before it is reasonable to ask for a second vote? Five years? Ten?

Irish Referendum Reruns

In Ireland, of course, we have a history of running second referendums.

The most famous examples were the referendums in the previous decade on the treaties of Nice and Lisbon respectively.

Those who take issue with Ireland’s membership of the E.U. grumble that the will of the people was ignored when the Irish electorate declined to ratify both the first time around. But that view is difficult to square with the fact that in each second referendum, voter turnout was substantially higher and the margin of victory much wider than in the initial votes.

The same thing could well happen if the Brexit referendum were re-run, additionally, the electorate has a lot more information now on what Brexit really means. 

Another interesting example, in terms of understanding when a second vote should be held, can be seen on Ireland’s two referendums on divorce.

In 1986, 63.5% of Irish voters decided to maintain Ireland’s constitutional ban on divorce. Despite this convincing margin of victory, the question was put to the Irish electorate again in 1995. This time, the ban on divorce was lifted, but the winning margin was only nine thousand votes or half a per cent of the overall turnout.

By way of comparison, the first attempts to ratify both Nice and Lisbon were both defeated by a winning margin of over 7% of those who voted. From an abstract point of view, is there some principle by which we can say that the Nice and Lisbon reruns were justified, but holding another vote in the wake of the razor-thin decision on divorce in 1995 was not?

In some ways, the best comparison between the Brexit vote and Irish referendums is the vote on the Eighth Amendment in 1983. These were very different issues obviously, but the problem in both cases was that an unsophisticated ‘yes or no’ choice was presented on questions of extraordinary complexity.

After the Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983, the Irish electorate had to be consulted four more times for clarification on what they believed should or should not be permissible under the abortion ban.

Up until this point, the effort to achieve Brexit for the U.K. has proven impossible as there is no consensus on what it should actually entail. Offering voters a simple choice on intricate issues can have disastrous consequences.

When it comes to holding second referendums, it is evident that there are times when that can be justified. But the scenario in which this is true is more ‘know it when you see it’ rather than any clear set of criteria.

Based on what has happened in the United Kingdom since the Brexit vote, it seems that this is ‘it’. 

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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