The UK has been in the grip of a political crisis since 24 June, 2016 when the people voted to leave the European Union, ending an uneasy relationship lasting 43 years. PM David Cameron resigned the following morning, citing the need for new leadership to lead the country out of the EU. Since then, another PM, Theresa May, has resigned and her successor, current PM Boris Johnson, is nowhere nearer to solving the Brexit question than his predecessors. As the UK’s date of departure from the EU approaches, the sense of a political deadlock is palpable. In this post, I argue for the need to hold a second referendum on democratic grounds.
Let us first consider two arguments which have been offered to support a second referendum and see why they fail. The first argument states that the UK is economically and politically better off remaining in the EU. Let’s call this the beneficial argument. Now, the beneficial argument might be factually correct but it is problematic from a democratic standpoint. This is because we should not revoke a democratic decision simply because of its perceived ‘bad’ consequences (although it might be a different story if it’s really bad, on the scale of electing another Nazi government but I assume this is not what we’re dealing with). Referendum is a democratic procedure in which the state asks its citizens for instruction on how to proceed on a particular issue. The expectation is that if all the requirements of a legitimate democratic procedure are met (e.g. fairness, equality, etc.) then the result ought to be respected. To cancel the result of a referendum on consequentialist grounds (benefits of remaining outweigh those of leaving) is to make redundant the proceduralist aspect of democracy (although this might not be the only reason which gives a democratic decision its legitimacy).
The second argument, sometimes follows the beneficial argument, claims that the UK public was misled about the benefits of Brexit, as well as the costs of remaining in the EU. Let’s call this the misinformed argument. There are various examples to support the misinformed argument with the most famous being the ‘Brexit bus’. For this reason, the misinformed argument goes, the result of the referendum should be voided and another one should be held. The problem is that while it’s true many lies were told during the course of this referendum, the same is true in any other elections and referendums. This is further compounded with the proliferation of misinformation, or ‘fake news’, on social platforms. Of course, more needs to be done to mitigate the effects of lies and misinformation on the democratic process. But it’d be arbitrary to set a threshold for the amount of lies and misinformation tolerated in a referendum. How many lies are too many? And why that is so? The misinformed argument emphasises a crucial problem facing our democracy but it doesn’t in itself justify overturning a democratic decision.
And yet I do think that there is a case for a second referendum. Few would disagree that the representation of citizens’ vital interests is crucial in a democracy. For citizens’ vital interests to be represented, the options available in a referendum have to correspond to those vital interests. Let’s call this the inclusive test of democracy. A referendum held without sufficient options to represent citizens’ vital interests fails the inclusive test and therefore it fails to meet a crucial requirement of democracy. In electoral politics, citizens are free to vote for parties and politicians whom they feel can best represent their vital interests. If there are no parties representing the vital interests of citizens, new parties can be formed to remedy this shortcoming. Now, referendum and election are both important democratic procedures to guarantee that the government listens to and acts in accordance with the instructions from its citizens. Notwithstanding the practical differences between the two procedures, they both achieve the same goal in giving citizens the opportunity to have their say on what they hold as important.
From here, I think there are two questions that are central to whether we need a second referendum. The first is if the future relationship between the UK and the EU constitutes a vital interest to UK citizens? (I acknowledge that the referendum might be under-inclusive but for a different reason, i.e. it fails to include all those affected by its outcome, a view supported by Iris Marion Young. I cannot deal with this separate issue within the short space given but I note that this may be a further problem raised against the 2016 referendum). The second is that whether the options available – Leave and Remain – were sufficiently inclusive to represent citizens’ interests? In short, did the 2016 referendum pass the inclusive test? I think the answer is no; or, to be more specific, the question of the future relationship between the UK and the EU was indeed an important issue and putting it to a referendum was the right thing to do. But the options available were under-inclusive as they didn’t sufficiently represent the vital interests of UK citizens.
The future relationship between the UK and EU cannot be reduced to a binary choice of Leave and Remain. For instance, we could have a version that closely resembles Remain but requires substantial changes to the current agreement (the so-called Norway model or the Norway plus model, which would see the UK staying in the single market and signing a new customs union with the EU). In similar vein, we could have multiple versions of Leave (no-deal, Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal deal, etc.) and a plethora of other options in between Leave and Remain. The point is that the duality of Leave/Remain fails to offer the people with sufficient options from which to choose. Of course, this is not to say that every option needs to be on the ballot paper. The inclusiveness of the options should not paralyse the deliberative process. But it’s imperative that the voters are given another referendum on this issue, one with options that are sufficiently inclusive.