I always thought that a referendum would be the unfairest possible way of measuring popular support for the European Union. Those who most admire the EU would be, by definition, the least likely to take part in a democratic event such as a referendum. The EU’s supporters tend, in the main, to think that important political decisions should be privatised or contracted out to a faraway, multinational administration to deal with. They think that democracy should be inconspicuous – a kind of harmless ceremonialism – and that we should otherwise remain as politically passive as ordinary people are within the Chinese system.
So in 2016, anybody who had wanted to Brexit should have been required to physically leave their homes and go to a polling station to vote. Meanwhile, all of those who forgot to vote or who just couldn’t be bothered should have been counted as supporters of the EU. A belief in democracy would have been thus confirmed through the very act of voting.
Those who currently desire to dig up the EU and restore it to the rude health of Frankenstein’s monster have hit upon a second referendum as offering the surest animating spark. Their ploy goes something like this. There will be a ballot with three options: “crashing out” of the union without a deal; accepting whatever deal has been brokered with Michel Barnier; or remaining in the EU altogether. Naturally, Barnier will do everything in his power to ensure that the paltriest possible deal is on the ballot, with the calculation being that EU membership can be made to look sane and reasonable if it is put up against some suitably apocalyptic alternatives.
The weak spot in the whole stratagem is that it depends upon the voters being unfazed by this obvious manipulation. Another potential danger is that the turnout in the referendum will be so low that the EU – this beloved institution that is supposedly vital to our economic future – ends up winning with the active support of an embarrassingly tiny percentage of the population. Out in the darkness, the masses will be left stirring ominously.
In keeping with the manipulative use of language that is so characteristic of the European project (e.g. the bureaucracy is always referred to as if it is somehow “Europe”), the second referendum is being styled “a People’s Vote.” Whoever took part in the first referendum has been thus subtly dehumanised.
Yet those who are calling the loudest for a second referendum do not appear, upon inspection, to have any sincere belief in the assumptions upon which our democracy is founded or a track record of striving to implement any existing referendum results that might happen to be outstanding. Indeed, they are amazingly open in their contempt for the electorate, deeming them so foolish as to have been brainwashed by Russian bots on Twitter or by a single, particularly questionable advert on the side of a campaign bus. It seems that those who are desperate to manipulate us back into EU membership can only attribute their previous failures to somebody else’s spectral manipulations.
The idea that each of us has the wisdom to decide the future of the country is the raw material of any democracy. Those who want to reinstall the EU are not looking to appeal to this wisdom – after all, they have no faith in it. Instead, they wish to terrify and manipulate us into being reconciled once again with EU membership. The latest of these menaces, tweeted by no less an arch-manipulator than Alastair Campbell, is that, “No deal Brexit means no food Brexit and no medicines Brexit…” Since nobody would surely vote for no food and no medicine, such apparently factual statements are in effect interpretable as orders, and ones that this time the population are expected to obey.
If, in a second referendum, you are minded to vote against whatever-it-is that the EU wants, then you have already had two years of firm discouragement. Gainsay the EU and the politicians who will have to implement your decision are likely to, once again, do everything that they can to wriggle out of it. They will no doubt, once again, refuse to respect your vote. They will no doubt exploit the fact that this country has a secret ballot to attribute all manner of malign or credulous motives to you. They will produce the Russian bots again and cite them, with various crucial stepping-stones of logic missing, as the chief reason for why their own revered, anti-democratic organisation is inexplicably unpopular.
Within a political culture in which there is now such a learned distrust of whether democratic decisions will be enacted, how can a second referendum ever be conducted fairly? How can it meet the most basic international standards of democratic fairness?
Of course, this distrust could potentially favour the Brexiteers. If the 2016 referendum had been really “only advisory,” as some of its sorest losers are prone to insist, then many more people would have happily voted against the EU. They would have viewed their vote as comprising merely some harmless abuse – rotten eggs that could be safely thrown at the EU without killing it. Those of Jeremy Corbyn’s and Paul Mason’s mind – namely, an anti-imperialist hatred of the Greece-squashing machine – would have almost certainly voted to Leave. An advisory referendum is essentially a petition – it lacks the solemnity and grandeur of a genuine democratic event.
There is nonetheless something naïve in assuming that the authorities would ever fairly implement the results of such an important referendum. I feel bemused whenever I hear the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg hoarsely maintaining that, “they said they would implement and respect the referendum result.” These people sound adrift from the realities of power, which is conceivably the problem with entrusting a revolutionary task to conservatives. The Brexiteers cannot derive lasting political credit from waving around the results of the 2016 referendum like the sword Excalibur. They have to instead guarantee that popular support for Brexit remains constant and self-renewing. In this respect, a second win – a win, even, for “crashing out” – would be extremely fortuitous.
The ultimate reality of contemporary politics is that the UK can neither truly Brexit nor disregard the results of the referendum, one of the biggest and most democratic events in modern history, without unarguable popular backing. Until one side achieves this support, UK politics is basically going nowhere. The situation henceforth requires ever more dispute and controversy, the further interrogation of lazy assumptions, and maybe even a small war, until the forces of one side are finally depleted. In other words, we do not so much need a second referendum as a second revolution, a challenge to the status quo that is even more disruptive and emphatic than the last one.