The “will of the people” is not set in stone – a second referendum is the only way to heal the nation

The fault lies with the Brexiteers themselves, because they are the real betrayers of democracy.

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A second Brexit referendum would be a gross betrayal of democracy, the Brexiteers cry. It would shatter the people’s faith in our political system. It would lead to civil unrest, even blood on the streets.

This is nonsense. Nobody has ignored the result of the 2016 vote. The Brexiteers have had nearly three years to put it into practice. The reason it has not been implemented is because the land of milk and honey that they promised – Boris Johnson’s quick, painless, have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit – was never attainable. They cannot blame Remainers for the present deadlock. They cannot blame the European Union, which has negotiated hard but in good faith. They cannot blame Theresa May, who may have voted Remain but has since done her utmost to secure the hard Brexit that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his fellow European Research Group (ERG) zealots have been demanding. May has been assisted in that effort by no fewer than three staunchly pro-Brexit secretaries of state for exiting the EU – David Davis, Dominic Raab and Stephen Barclay, and several prominent cabinet Brexiteers including Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.

The fault lies with the Brexiteers themselves, because they are the real betrayers of democracy.

Democracy depends on a few fundamental tenets: politicians adhering broadly to the truth, a well-informed electorate, competing parties abiding by electoral rules. None of those tenets were observed in 2016.The Remain campaign may have overstated the immediate economic consequences of leaving but the Brexiteers blatantly lied. All the benefits of EU membership with none of the rules, non-EU countries queuing up for trade deals, the £350m-a-week NHS dividend, an invasion by 80 million Turks – those were all lies, as Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Brexit’s other champions knew full well.

Does anyone seriously believe Britain would have opted to Leave had voters instead been told that Brexit would actually mean a £39bn divorce bill, the undermining of Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, a haemorrhaging of NHS staff, sterling’s devaluation, disinvestment, jobs and British nationals migrating abroad, paralysed government, and the country supplicant, mocked, humiliated and beset by strife?

The Brexiteers’ mendacity was aided and abetted by Britain’s biggest newspapers, which for three decades had fostered the myth of plucky Britain waging a lonely rearguard action against scheming continentals determined to destroy our way of life. Come the referendum, they went into overdrive, pumping out Soviet-style propaganda. The BBC was meanwhile hobbled by “impartiality” requirements that meant the Brexiteers’ lies went unchecked.

As for electoral rules, Vote Leave and Leave.EU have been fined for serious breaches of spending and data laws during the referendum. The extent of Russia’s interference in our democratic process remains unclear. Given that Leave prevailed by just 1,269,501 of the 33,577,342 votes cast, it may well be that the referendum was won on false pretences, but the issue now is how Britain can escape from the impasse.

May’s deal probably is, as she claims, the best available, but it is surely now dead. The ERG’s ideological extremists would crash out of the EU with no deal, but the electorate certainly did not vote for that catastrophic option. Which leaves, by default, a second referendum in which a deadlocked government seeks further instruction from the people. The Brexiteers cannot argue that going back to a better-informed electorate is undemocratic. The “will of the people” was not set in concrete on 23 June 2016. It adapts to changing circumstances. A second referendum is surely the only legitimate way the result of a first referendum can be superseded, just as the 2016 vote superseded that of 1975 in which Britain voted to join the EU. 

I would go further, and argue that far from exacerbating Britain’s divisions, a second referendum may be the only way of healing the nation. If Leave won again, even the most ardent Remainers would have to concede that Britain must leave the EU – with or without a deal. Conversely, if the Remainers managed to win by a margin of, say, 55 per cent to 45 or more, it would be hard for Brexiteers to claim that the “will of the people” had been ignored. It would be very hard for them to argue that democracy had been traduced by a democratic vote.

A second referendum is a wretched way to break the impasse. It is merely the least bad option, and many Leave voters would be furious if the 2016 result was overturned. But they would be more furious if they found themselves living in an impoverished, marginalised Britain and realised that the Brexiteers had deceived them; if blue-collar workers lost their livelihoods as companies such as Nissan, Airbus and Honda pulled out of Britain; if the young lost their right to live, work, study and travel in Europe because of the way the elderly had voted.

To suggest that the country would plunge into something not far short of civil war if Britain stayed in the EU is the Brexiteers’ version of Project Fear. Some hardcore Leavers might take to the streets, led by the likes of Tommy Robinson. But I suspect most Britons would simply be relieved that three years of ugly tumult were finally over and that they could resume normal life. After all, they had never clamoured for a Brexit referendum in the first place.

Brexiteers oppose a second referendum for a reason. They invoke the spectre of violent disorder for a purpose. They do so not out of respect for democracy, but because they fear that they could not dupe the electorate into voting a second time for Britain’s defenestration. 

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure