The five arguments against a People’s Vote and why they’re wrong

The People’s Vote march in London. Picture by ILovetheEU (CC-BY-SA-4.0.)

Elen Roberts

A few weeks ago I joined approximately 700,000 people from every corner of the UK in the protest for a People’s Vote, in other words a vote on the final Brexit deal.

However much Brexiteer commentators have sneered and dismissed the march as the collective groan of the “liberal metropolitan elite”, in fact people from all walks of life were represented.

What we shared is the sincere and deeply held conviction that ultimately, no form of Brexit will bring any tangible benefits to the country.

In the interim, it is galling to watch the Government implode with infighting over Theresa May’s deal, which is hated by both Remainers and Leavers alike, and will without doubt make the UK poorer and more isolated.

Brexiteers are at pains to argue that a People’s Vote would be unconscionable for a range of reasons. I hope to dispel at least some of their arguments in this article.

Argument 1: A People’s Vote would be essentially a re-run of the 2016 Referendum and, therefore, fundamentally undemocratic

The 2016 Referendum was a binary and theoretical choice between remaining in or leaving the EU – no more than that. The Leave side encompassed a plethora of diametrically opposed visions for a post-Brexit UK – ranging from:

  • the protectionist socialism of the Lexiteers, who would pull up the drawbridge to the movement of labour and capital, and seek to improve British workers’ rights, re-nationalise utilities and grow the welfare state without restrictions placed upon them by what they see as a technocratic and essentially undemocratic EU;
  • the “global Britain” espoused by free marketeers, who would seek to strike free trade deals with countries across the world, focusing on the UK’s old (though now very tenuous) ties to the Commonwealth. A part of this camp seems to favour an Australian-style merit-based immigration system that would not automatically favour EU citizens, whilst others would seek to restrict immigration altogether;
  • the Norway model (“soft Brexit”) favoured by more liberal Conservatives, or alternatively the Canada model. While the former has the dubious merit of being the least terrible option for Remainers, the latter is problematic because the EU’s trade deal with Canada excluded services, and the UK is a service-based economy.

As such there was zero consensus or plan from the Leave side as to precisely which form Brexit would take, nor how the Government should seek to negotiate this against 27 countries, which, ironically, have become ever more united and resolute since the 2016 Referendum, especially about the Irish border issue.

The growing consensus is that the People’s Vote would give the British public three choices:  to remain, to leave without a deal, or to accept the deal on offer.

In light of all the information that has emerged over the past two years and the greater public awareness of the functioning and purpose of the EU, a People’s Vote would be a  much more informed vote than the 2016 Referendum.

The latter asked the public to vote for an idea; a People’s Vote would focus on three clear and tangible options.

Argument 2: A People’s Vote would be overturning the “will of the people”

A national referendum at one point in time simply does not constitute the “will of the people” (itself a vague and ill-defined expression often invoked by hard right regimes).

If this argument had any logic or validity, then as a point of principle governments would never allow citizens to change their mind about issues that have recently been scrutinised for legislative reform in many countries, such as same-sex marriage or legalising and improving access to abortion.

Furthermore, it is inadvisable to think of the 52% of the electorate who voted Leave in 2016 as a monolithic, homogenous group (see Argument 1) who would all automatically vote the same way in a People’s Vote.

The same goes for the 48% who voted Remain. It is a fact of life, and very common in politics, for people of all persuasions to change their mind on a range of issues over time, and that without doubt includes the UK’s membership of the EU.

If in the unlikely case that not even one of the 2016 Leave voters had changed their mind, then they would have complete freedom to vote out again in a People’s Vote.

Argument 3: The result of the 2016 Referendum must be respected whatever the outcome of the negotiations as a matter of principle

This argument is frankly absurd, and is rarely applied to any other major decision whether political, commercial or personal.

It is important to note that the 2016 Referendum was not binding and, legally, the Government is under no obligation to follow the result.

Having said that, the Government promised to enact the Referendum result and it would be seen by many as a betrayal of the electorate for it to renege on that promise.

I do have sympathy for this argument; however, since the Referendum it has become patently clear that any form of Brexit, including the one proposed by Theresa May, will have a detrimental effect on the UK’s economy.

Let us not forget that the Government owes a duty of care to its citizens, and its overriding obligation is to legislate in the national interest.

If Brexit, as it turns out, is not in the national interest, then would it not be a major dereliction of duty on the Government’s part to steamroll ahead with it come what may?

Argument 4: The possibility of a People’s Vote weakens the UK’s negotiating hand in Brussels

Time and again, hardline Brexiteers have threatened (with varying degrees of conviction) to walk away from negotiations and turn the UK into a Singapore style low-tax haven should the EU not cave in to all the UK’s unreasonable demands.

In fact, most of them actively desire this outcome.

The EU remains unfazed. In terms of the UK’s weak hand, the possibility of a People’s Vote should be the least of the Brexiteers’ worries.

I would argue that what weakens their hand far more is, for example:

  • the Leave campaign having promised a result that was essentially undeliverable and based on hubris and an over-inflated sense of the UK’s importance in the world, namely retaining all the benefits of EU membership after having left the club, and shouldering none of its burdens;
  • a legislature that is deeply divided on the issue;
  • the intractability of the Irish border question. In light of the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government is legally bound to strive for lasting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. A hard border would be a very tangible obstacle to this. The fact that most Brexiteers could not care less about the Irish peace process does not wish it away.

Argument 5: A People’s Vote would cause yet more division

Alas, the damage is already done. Assuming that following a People’s Vote, there was a Remain victory, we can never simply return to the UK that existed pre-2016.

The Referendum exposed that the name “United Kingdom” is merely a sad misnomer – divided as it is across the four nations, age, race, cultural outlook and, most crucially, socio-economic class.

Thanks to further devolution and the positive civic nationalism of the SNP, Scotland has moved in a very different direction to England, and in many ways it already has its foot halfway out of the Union door.

The next few decades will prove crucial for Northern Ireland, with its Catholic population soon predicted to overtake its Protestant counterpart, and with Brexit having recruited countless more people from both communities to the cause of Irish reunification.

It is less conspicuously make or break time for Wales – does it want to stand on its own two feet or forever be an appendage to an ever more right-wing and nationalist England? Only time will tell.

Whatever happens, I fear that as the clock ticks up to March 2019, we are in for much more political turbulence.

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