The problem with vapid statements is they work only as placeholders, and cannot exist as anything beyond meaningless soundbites – except, maybe, in the form of a joke. A wonderful example of such a statement is Theresa May’s, “Brexit means Brexit,” which, this country has come to discover in recent days/weeks/months (I guess it depends how much obnoxious foresight one wishes to prescribe to themselves) isn’t quite sufficient to negotiate one of the most complicated diplomatic de-couplings in history. The effectiveness of, “Brexit means Brexit,” at least initially, stems from the same syllogistic logic that 1 = 1. The difference, however, is that most people know what the number 1 means.
It is not that people – be it politicians or pundits or the public – do not know what Brexit means per se; we all know that Brexit means the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Rather, the problem is the question of how we leave the European Union – stumbling drunkenly out of the club reciting an infamous retort of Bender from Futurama; or thanking everyone on our way out for giving us such a lovely time, before sending them a Facebook friend request.
Such analogies for a hard and soft Brexit might sound dumb, but frankly, they are as valid as any other description of our current negotiating debate. Do not misunderstand me: it is not that people do not know what they are doing, it is that nobody seems able to agree on whose nicely typeset and grammar checked proposal should be put through the Westminster meat-grinder this week, and whose should live to die another day.
This, “majority for nothing,” situation is what has caused the former education secretary Justine Greening to add her voice to the increasing numbers calling for a people’s vote on the final Brexit outcome (why exactly they are calling it a people’s vote and not a referendum, beyond the benefits such linguistic wizardry may provide in a PR battle, is beyond me). I have previously written about a potential second referendum, to an extent advocating for it, and I will not shy away from grounding my thoughts on Ms. Greening’s proposal in my previously held position. But first, let us lay out what is being proposed:
- There will be three options available: a clean break (no-deal), a facilitated customs arrangement (FCA; Mrs. May’s Chequers plan) and the option to remain in the EU.
- Voters will be given a primary and secondary vote, allowing them to vote for two of the above options – essentially showing their ranked preference of all three options – which will ensure the option that wins has a majority backing.
Insofar as such an incendiary thing as a second referendum goes, I like Ms. Greening’s initial proposal, and her rationale for proposing it. Whilst a Remainer, this referendum feels less like an obvious Remainer coup masquerading as devolved democracy than previous calls might have done. The proposal certainly tries – though, may not succeed – to ensure the vote spells out a more specific arrangement than the 2016 referendum question achieved. Finally, at least theoretically, the primary and secondary vote structure brings clarity to the country’s preference, and again helps dissuade criticism that this is just a Remainer coup.
On that latter, and indeed immediately former point of praise, I have heard criticism, however. Some might argue that two leave options and only one remain option will split the leave vote, biasing the vote towards remain. This may be true of a vote consisting of only one elected choice, but with a primary and secondary choice, such criticism appears to be a misunderstanding of reality. A leaver, we might presume, will vote for both leave options (the exact preference does not matter). Yet a Remainer, whose primary vote will support remaining in the EU, will have to (provided single-elective votes are not counted, which, given this is all presently hypothetical, I must assume) vote for a leave option as their secondary choice. Rather than such a referendum being biased towards Remain, this referendum proffers a Leave sentiment.
This, in turn, leads to a second curiosity to consider: who would win? To that it is hard to say, but I do offer an alternative proposition: the vote for a soft-Brexit (the FCA plan backed by Mrs. May’s) will dominate, and will muddy any outcome. This will be despite it would be the public’s least preferred option. Here’s why.
Extend the rationale prescribed above. Those on the extremes of this debate, hard Brexiteers and Remainers, will of course favour no-deal and remain respectively. Their second elective, by demographic definition, must be for a soft-Brexit. On paper, thus, the only apparent agreeable consensus between these two groups is a soft-Brexit – they both said it was their secondary choice! In as long as it is short, this is the situation we presently find ourselves, and we are at an impasse. In terms of the extremes, this referendum will solve nothing.
Of course, the purpose of the referendum is to garner the opinions of the British people, and the majority of the British people are not on the extremes, at least insofar as they are willing to listen to argument and allow themselves to be convinced by it. But even a Remain-leaning voter, or a Leave-leaning voter, will most commonly select amongst their choices the soft-Brexit option (possibly as a first-choice, often as a second-choice).
The structure of this vote will inevitably polarise people (this is mathematical fact: if 1 and 3 represent polar opposite positions, and you must pick two numbers between 1 and 3, one foot must end up on an icecap), and thus the majority of people, whom we might assume are broadly split down the middle between the extreme positions, will appear most reconcilable around a soft-Brexit. Again, this accomplishes nothing.
Further, because the vote is inevitably polarising, I would predict the Remain and Leave campaigns, rather than a third soft-Brexit campaign, to dominant the narrative. In effect, then, this vote would be rendered a re-run of the last referendum, which has a smell of democratic-subversion. But this is not the point I would immediately like to make. Rather, my point is this: in such a referendum campaign, the number of individuals who elect, primarily or secondly, both no-deal and remain in, will be reduced, and thus the proliferation of a soft-Brexit vote will be facilitated. We might expect such a group of people to be small anyway, and that is true, but unless there is a strong core of supporters campaigning for a soft-Brexit, this group will get smaller. As an aside, if such hypothesising is true, it seems terribly offensive to the democratic process that the winning strategy might be to do nothing.
One should not ignore an additional line of inquiry, one that is somewhat ironic given my previous statement, that being that a soft-Brexit vote is one that most preserves democracy, by which I mean honours the outcome of the previous referendum. Of course, the no-deal option does so too; but I can imagine a compelling logic in the mind of the average voter that Brexit must happen, but it should not jeopardise various interests, and thus a soft-Brexit is preferential.
Let me clarify: I am not riling against a soft-Brexit outcome. Instead, I am arguing that a soft-Brexit outcome invalidates the whole reason for having the second referendum. I can see some reasoning, of course: one or both of the extreme sides of the Brexit debate may be side-lined as a result, less they be accused of subverting the democratic will. This might enable a majority in parliament for the FCA, or something similar. But a soft-Brexit arrangement, by its nature, would be a messy outcome, and thus anyone believing these groups would go quietly is deluding themselves; a soft-Brexit still leaves room for hard Brexiteers and Remainers to return. It still allows both sides to argue mass favour of, or dissention towards, the EU. Consider it another way: was the 2016 referendum not a clear-cut question that should have, in theory, silenced – or at least demobilised – those whose arguments lost? As it did not, what guarantees do we have that a second referendum, irrespective of outcome, will resolve the situation we find ourselves in?
If, then, this new referendum may devolve into a re-run of the last referendum; if the result may leave us exactly where we are; and if the new result may not guarantee parliamentary consensus; if all these things, why even have the referendum? The retort to these arguments is that we don’t know, and cannot know until run, what the outcome would be. I will not argue against such a retort, though I do not believe it invalidates the arguments I have raised. A second referendum is not a panacea.
Following my previous comments
I might be accused of being a hypocrite, given that sentence.
I have previously written about the prospect of a second referendum. In that piece, I argued Mrs. May could take a political gamble to strengthen her position in her own party, and perhaps in parliament. My proposal was simple: re-run the referendum, and side with Remain. The youth support so enamoured with Jeremy Corbyn would suddenly have a new champion – at least in terms of Brexit – in the form of Mrs. May, whilst the hard Brexiteers in her own party would be forced into an existential contest: win, or accept the PM’s authority. Of course, Mrs. May would also face an existential contest, for should she have lost she would have had to resign. This is why it was a gamble, and given Theresa May will surely have a promising career as a glue salesperson once her time in office is up, it was never one she was likely to take.
Ignoring Mrs. May’s FCA plan, this barrier to a second referendum remains. As the 2017 General election demonstrates, Mrs. May will not take a risk unless she believes herself likely to win.
But we cannot ignore the FCA; Mrs. May has made her bed, and she must now sleep in it. If my thoughts are right, nothing will change; if my thoughts are wrong, Mrs. May will have to resign. A second referendum now holds none of the advantages that it did prior to her unveiling her plan. When I hypothesised about the potential political benefits for Mrs. May of holding a second referendum, I considered only the political benefits, which – at the time – I believed existed. For Mrs. May, these benefits no longer exist, and thus she will not call another referendum.
Yet this is an obvious conclusion.
This conclusion is also simply mathematics: if there isn’t a consensus to get any Brexit plan through parliament, there is certainly not a majority to get a second referendum vote through parliament without (and possibly even with) the PM’s backing.
All of this Brexit debate, and I do mean all of it, points to the elephant in the room. Shaped by the rhetoric of the victors, too often there is a narrative that the country wants Brexit, that the country thinks Brexit will be bad for jobs, that the country wants control of its borders, that the country is concerned about leaving the single market. The only thing we can say about this country and Brexit is that 52% voted to leave the EU, and 48% voted to remain in the EU. For all the talk, for all the rhetoric and vitriol, if you want to know why we’re divided on Brexit, the answer is because we’re divided on Brexit. I am not confident a second referendum will change that.