Let’s be honest about what a second referendum means

22 October 2019

4:30 PM

22 October 2019

4:30 PM

A second referendum would be a political abomination. And it’s about time more of us said so.

We need to get real about what a second referendum would mean. If we have another referendum in which Remain is an option on the ballot paper, it will be the first time in the history of British democracy that the British people voted for something and it didn’t happen.

It will be the first time we made a clear, mass democratic choice and the political class turned around to us and said:

‘Sorry, you can’t have that. You have to vote again.’

The precedent this would set would be dreadful. It would rip up the democratic contract itself. It would rupture the bond that exists between the people and the political class — the bond that says that when we make a decision, they act upon it. Democracy cannot function if this bond is broken.

It is striking that the phrase ‘second referendum’ has largely fallen out of fashion. That’s because the politicians and campaigners who want another referendum recognise, at least instinctively, that they are doing something wrong.

They know how the words ‘second referendum’ sound to most people. They make it sound as though the political class doesn’t trust us. That they think we are ignoramuses who made a dumb decision in 2016 and therefore must be given a second chance to make the right decision — the right decision being to vote Remain, of course.

And so some doublespeak phrases have been invented to disguise the deeply undemocratic and patronising nature of a second referendum. Some campaigners call it a ‘confirmatory vote’. Others call it a ‘People’s Vote’.

The army of Remainers who marched in London on Saturday did so under the banner of a ‘People’s Vote’. They overlook that we had a people’s vote already, in June 2016, and that it was the largest people’s vote in the history of this country. It’s a bit of a bloody cheek to march for a ‘people’s vote’ when really your aim is to overthrow a people’s vote.

Labour, which will this week whip its MPs to back a second-referendum motion in parliament, has taken to calling it a ‘Final Say’ referendum. That in itself is a pretty terrifying phrase. Why should the second referendum be the final say? Why wasn’t the first referendum the final say?

The thing is that however a second referendum is dressed up, it remains just that: a second referendum. This is the key question: is Remain on the ballot paper? If it is, then it is a second referendum, and it is an entirely illegitimate vote to hold.

Of course, every single campaigner for a confirmatory vote, a ‘People’s Vote’ or a ‘Final Say’ wants Remain on the ballot paper. They make this clear constantly. Because their true aim is to try to do over the result of the first referendum — the legitimate referendum.

The most unconvincing claim made by second-referendum agitators is that democracy always involves going back to the people. ‘Democracy is an ongoing process’, they say. We vote in General Elections every four years, so why shouldn’t we have another EU referendum given it is nearly four years since the first one?

Here’s why that is staggeringly disingenuous and almost unbelievably cynical: because the difference in this case would be that the result of the first vote would not be enacted before we were made to vote again. Let’s say that one more time: a second vote would take place before the first vote had taken force.

This would be clearly, obviously and alarmingly anti-democratic. Comparing a second referendum to a General Election is ridiculous. When we vote in a General Election, the thing we vote for actually happens. The party we vote for forms a government. It passes laws. It does what it says it would do (sometimes).

Imagine if there was a General Election and a majority of people voted for the Tories but various political elites and business elites prevented the Tories from entering Downing Street or forming a government. Imagine if they frustrated the creation of this democratically-elected government for nearly four years. And imagine if they then said to the public:

‘You can’t have this government. You were wrong to vote for it. Now you must vote again.’

That would be shocking, right? That would be an outright assault on the entire principle of democracy, yes? Well, if you are one of the ‘People’s Vote’ or ‘Final Say’ activists, this is exactly the scenario you are fighting for. A scenario in which the people are told they cannot have the thing they voted for and must instead take part in a second vote. Can you just think about that for a moment? Like, really think about it.

In 2016, we were told again and again that this was a once-in-a-generation vote (Nick Clegg) and that we wouldn’t be made to vote again (Peter Mandelson) and that the government would enact what we voted for (David Cameron and every single MP who signed up to the EU Referendum Act).

For the establishment to backtrack on all of this would do irreparable damage to democracy and to people’s trust in politics. If you are campaigning for the holding of a second vote before the first vote has taken force, then, frankly, you should be ashamed of yourself.

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