Nigel Farage has called for a second Brexit referendum, and in an unusual alliance this is very much welcomed by Remainers like Nick Clegg. It is perhaps heretical for me, a Remainer, LibDem voter (and lapsed party member and volunteer) to say this, but I’m not too keen on a second referendum.
I think it is clear that there is a moral case for a second referendum. Brexit is an undemocratic process. It had a slim majority on its inception, won by a campaign that made a number of dishonest claims about what a post-Brexit Britain would look like. Both the Leave and Remain campaigns were broad coalitions, meaning that no party takes responsibility for implementing any of the promises made by the campaigns — Boris Johnson wasn’t pledging £350 million a week to the NHS as a Conservative; he was doing so as a Leaver. In June 2016, nobody had a good idea of what the negotiations would look like, or what sort of complications would occur, or who would carry them out. The amount of new information since the last referendum merits a new one.
But I don’t think a second referendum is necessarily a good idea in practice.
Firstly, a pessimistic view: Suppose we lose a second time. Think about how insufferably triumphalist the Brexiters are already: ‘Get over it, you lost already, you Remoaners,’ and so on. The same have not got over having won once already, and are now calling for a second referendum. Think about how much more insufferable they will be if they do win a second time.
I think a second referendum is more likely to see a (slim) Remain win rather than a second Brexit win. This is worse! Suppose we win by a slim 52–48 majority: Nigel himself said if Remain won with such a small majority it would be unfinished business (so at least he’s being consistent with his call today). Then what happens? Well, apart from the inevitable stall in negotiations, we think back to November 2016 when Nigel also threatened riots if the British people didn’t get what he wanted.
I don’t want to take this threat lightly. Already, anybody trying to apply the law and constitutional procedures to Brexit, or criticising the government’s approaches — let alone actual Remain supporters — are called Remoaners, elitists, undemocratic, unpatriotic, traitors, enemies of the people, or ‘having no faith in Britain’. Judges and parliamentarians get death threats for expressing their opinions in perfectly constitutional ways, and these threats are encouraged by newspapers. Do we really want to call the Brexiters on their threats of civil unrest?
If you withhold food from a tiger, what does it try to eat?
In summary, I think there’s a good case for a second referendum, and I think sufficiently many people will have changed their minds that Remain would win. But we should be cautious about the willingness and ability of a small minority to stir up trouble. After all, consider those who care little for judicial or parliamentary procedure, and those who are willing to send or encourage death threats to their political opponents. What will they care for the legitimacy of a referendum, however big the majority?
The city of Charn was destroyed by the Deplorable World, uttered by the Witch when she realised that the only way to hold on to her power and title was to destroy everything and everybody else. It is not difficult to conceive of some whose zeal for Brexit and ‘taking back control of our laws’ is so great that they are willing to damage Britain’s society and override said laws.