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It's perfectly sensible to want a second EU referendum. Here's why

Far from being anti-democratic, re-running the vote once the facts are known is entirely fair, says Bo Rothstein. 

In 1955, a referendum was held in Sweden on whether the country should continue to drive on the left or if there should be a switch to the right. A government committee investigating this issue had recommended such a change, the main argument being that this was the traffic system in all neighboring countries (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany. . .)

In the mid-1950s, opinion polls were not regularly held and the result of the referendum came as a big surprise. No less than 83 per cent of the voters wanted to keep left-side driving and only 15 per cent supported a change. Constitutionally, however, referendums in Sweden are not binding and in 1963, a very large majority in the Parliament (294 against 50) decided that the country should switch. What is interesting is that there was hardly any critique of this decision from the very large majority who had voted for keeping driving on the left.

The actual change of the traffic system took place in 1967 and I vividly remember the massive information campaign during my first weeks in high school. The general mood then and ever since has been that it was a very wise decision by the Swedish Parliament to disregard the referendum and decide to change. The 83 per cent who voted against a change had simply been wrong.

Although the issue of UK remaining or leaving the European Union is a bigger thing, this shows that the result of a referendum should neither be seen as set in stone nor as having absolute democratic legitimacy. In fact, it is easy to come up with examples where it is clear that majorities have been completely and utterly wrong. This is true in ethical issues (think of the white racist majority in the American south during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the situation in Germany in the 1930s). But it is also true when it comes to matters of fact, as shown in the many local referendums in the United States about water fluoridation. Although the scientific evidence of the benefits of this is crystal clear, many local referendums have produced majorities against. This has been detrimental both to the voters’ (and especially their children’s) personal health and also resulted in much larger bills from their dentists.

In political philosophy, this is known as the “epistemic problem of democracy”.  Simply put, political legitimacy is not only dependent on a decision getting support by the majority. In addition, the epistemic theory of democracy points to the need for the decisions to also be in some sense “true” and “right”. Decisions need to be “true” in the sense that they are not based on what is known to be factually wrong. A case in point is former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s policies for handling the HIV/AIDS disease. According to a conservative estimation, the policies launched by the democratically elected South African government in this area caused the premature death of some 340,000 individuals. As is well-known, the party responsible for this catastrophe continues to have the support of a majority of voters in South Africa.

Moreover, decisions needs to be “right” in the sense that ever so large majorities should not infringe on individual human and political rights, as now seem to be the case in Turkey.

In this light, another illustration about the problems with referendums can be seen from the decision about nuclear power in Sweden. After the disaster at the Harrisburg nuclear power plant in the U.S. in 1979, the Swedish government panicked and decided that a referendum should be held about the future use of nuclear energy. The issue of nuclear had been very high on the country’s political agenda since the beginning of the 1970s. The political parties produced three alternatives for the referendum, all stating that nuclear power should be abolished. The first proposed that the six existing nuclear power plants should be closed within 10 years and the six new plants that were either planned or being constructed should not be opened. The other two alternatives differed about public or private ownership but both stated that nuclear power should be abolished when other energy resources were available. In the debate, this was said to be within 25 years.

The majority voted for these two latter alternatives, thought of as ending nuclear power “within reason”. The referendum was held in 1980, and now, 36 years later, nine of the 12 nuclear power plants are still running. A clear majority voted to have nuclear power abolished by 2005 but this has not happened. The reason is that the successful proposals won because they promised something that in reality they could not guarantee, namely that other (and more safe) sources of energy would be available within a specific time horizon. The referendum in 1980 is now generally seen as an embarrassment.

The implication from this example for the Brexit referendum is this. If the Brexit referendum had been about nuclear power, the “remain” alternative would have been that the country should continue to use this source of energy. The “leave” side’s alternative would have been that nuclear power should be replaced by “magic power”. Magic power, the leave side would have said, is free, safe and clean and thus a better alternative than nuclear power.

My point is this – the leave side won because they, like the winning side in the Swedish referendum about nuclear power, promised something that does not exist. The idea that the UK could leave the EU but still have access to the single market without paying into the EU budget is a clear fantasy. Within days of the referendum result, leading politicians on the leave side had to admit that what they had promised was a mirage. Similarly, the idea that Britain will get access to the EU market but say no to free movement of labour is also pure fantasy – the likelihood that countries such as Poland and Romania would not veto such a deal is zero.

The slogan “Brexit means Brexit” is thus meaningless because no one knows what a Brexit alternative will look like. This is the downside of referendums, namely that it is too easy to win if you launch an alternative that is a mirage. Real politics is about taking responsibility for making difficult choices between far-from-perfect “real-world” alternatives. The implication is that when the leave side finally produces a deal that instead of offering magic specifies the actual conditions under which the United Kingdom will leave the EU, there should be a new referendum.

Bo Rothstein is Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.