“The people of Britain have spoken. Now we must all bury our differences, rally round and pull together with good grace.” Fat chance! It sounds good. Yet the problem is that too many of us don’t believe the people of Britain really have spoken.
Some of us don’t believe the people of Britain were ever qualified to speak on such a complex and sophisticated question in the first place. We are those who believe not in plebiscites but in parliamentary democracy, where the people elect representatives qualified – and paid – to deliberate on complex issues and take decisions after due diligence and careful examination of all the repercussions. Our misgivings about plebiscites were alarmingly confirmed by the number of people in Britain who googled “What is the EU?” the day after voting to leave it. Also by the many irresponsible Leave voters who have belatedly voiced their regret: “I didn’t think my vote mattered. I only wanted to give Cameron a kicking. I never thought Leave would win.”
Setting aside us unfashionable elitists, it is now admitted that the Leave campaign was glaringly mendacious (think of the Brexit bus plastered with its £350m lie) and the perpetrators of the lies have now, predictably, gone to ground, washing their hands of the mess they have wished upon us.
Even if we were reluctantly to accept the idea of plebiscites, it is a well-established principle of democracy that, in the case of major constitutional changes that are hard to undo, the bar should be set higher than 50 per cent. Amendments to the US constitution require a two-thirds majority, in both houses of Congress, ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. Well-run democracies generally impose a built-in bias in favour of the status quo based on the precautionary principle.
Like the weather and like financial markets, public opinion fluctuates from day to day. It is obviously unwise to rush headlong into momentous and irrevocable change on the basis of what may well be a temporary spike above the 50 per cent threshold. A two-thirds majority, or at least a threshold that lies outside the statistical margin of error, is one way to guard against this.
Another way to guard against flash-in-the-pan spikes is to specify that there shall be a second vote, after a cooling-off period: two weeks, say, of sober reflection on the consequences if the first vote for change were to be upheld.
Cameron could easily have set in place either or both of those safeguards. In his arrogance, he thought he’d win anyway, and gambled away the country’s long-term future for the sake of short-term tactical gain within his own party. It is too late for him to act on what must now be his bitter remorse. He must retire to well-deserved ignominy, and good riddance to him. However, parliament, under Cameron’s successor, has a chance to unite the country. By holding a second referendum.
You cannot hold a second vote simply in the hope of getting a different result. That’s no way to run a democracy, and it is poignantly revealing that Nigel Farage, anticipating back in May that his side would lose narrowly, proposed that there should be a second referendum.
No, the justification for a second referendum is much stronger than that. It is that, if the result were to go the same way twice, we would all have good grounds for accepting that the people really have spoken their mind and truly favour the huge upheaval that is Brexit. Even we staunch EU loyalists would then swallow our misgivings and unite behind a Brexited Britain. We would become good losers, prepared to pull our weight and loyally make the best of it.
As was entirely predictable from the aftermath to the Scottish referendum, Britain is now deeply divided. We may yet lose Scotland itself: 400 years of united history carelessly tossed aside so that Cameron could shake off, or so he wrongly thought, the xenophobic Farageist yobs of his own party. As in the Scottish case, there is now venom in the air – so tragically unnecessary, and entirely caused by Cameron’s unforgivable folly: his cowardly abdication of the responsibilities of parliamentary democracy in favour of mob rule.
The bitterness will not evaporate overnight, whatever happens. It would be hard to undo even by a prime minister riding the wave-crest of a popular election. Cameron’s brave (some might say foolhardy) successor, by contrast, has been shoved sideways into the hot seat with no popular mandate, and she has a most unenviable task. It’s no wonder those responsible for poisoning the chalice have run so swiftly away from it. Her best hope of uniting us all behind Brexit is to call a second referendum to convince us sceptics that the British people did mean what they said on 23 June.
Think about it, Brexiteers. What do you have to lose in holding a second referendum? Do you not have the courage of your own convictions? Do you, perhaps, have stirrings of queasiness as you watch some of your most vocal leaders abandoning the sinking ship they helped to scupper – or at least displaying a disquieting cluelessness about what to do with the country now that they’ve “taken it back”?
Do you believe that the British people have spoken and a clear majority wants to leave Europe? Then why not put that belief to the test? A second victory would unite the country behind Brexit, dispel the rancour and have us all, with a will, pulling together for the good of the country.
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM