The demand for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit seems to be gathering force. The recent by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats’ in the hitherto Tory safe seat of Richmond was widely seen as a mini-referendum on Brexit. Former Tory Prime Minister John Major has waded into the debate, with his claims that while the popular verdict on the EU should be respected, a second referendum is nonetheless justified. Even Simon Jenkins, one of the few major commentators that managed to retain his composure in the aftermath of the June referendum, has given qualified support to the idea of a second referendum. In light of the continued prevarication over Brexit, it is worth revisiting some of our broad arguments regarding referendums and representative democracy. The Brexit effect continues to reverberate through British politics: those who sneered at referendums as rabble-rousing now earnestly make the case for a second referendum – thereby risking institutionalising the referendum as a mode of governance in Brexit Britain.
It is not difficult to discern arguments for having a second referendum, not least the fact that the precedent has now been established. The terms on which Britain leaves the European Union (EU) are clearly important for the country – in terms of movement of peoples, border control, long-term trade opportunities and patterns of economic growth. If the question of membership of the EU merited consulting the public, why should the terms on which we leave the EU not merit a similar level of democratic legitimation and public engagement? It is also worth noting that debates on a second referendum cut across the ongoing tussle in the Supreme Court over managing Brexit, such as the timing and modalities of invoking Article 50. After all, regardless of when Prime Minister May triggers Article 50 and whether or not she does it with a parliamentary vote, she could still call a referendum on the outcome of negotiations with Brussels at the end of the two-year negotiating period that would follow the invocation of Article 50. In light of all this, it is worth recalling what the best arguments for holding the Brexit referendum were in the first place, and considering how they stack up against the arguments for a second referendum.
On TCM we have sought to make the political case for representative democracy – against the inter-twined threats of technocratic subversion on the one hand, and the phony politicisation of populism on the other. Despite the fact that referendums justly have a reputation as the tool of direct democracy and populist authoritarianism, and whatever David Cameron’s personal motivations for calling the referendum, I supported a referendum on Brexit. More than this, I reckoned it to be the single most important political question put before the British electorate over the last three decades. There were several reasons for holding this view.
First, approaching the referendum entailed reckoning with the parlous state of representative democracy in Britain itself. That is to say: declining rates of public engagement and political participation whether measured by compression of the ideological spectrum, declining interest in politics, collapsing membership of political parties and the long term decline in voting in general elections. With the structures of representative democracy having been so rotted through prior to the referendum, it is reasonable to supplement the process of political decision-making with direct public engagement.
Important as such factors are, these were nonetheless secondary considerations. More important was the fact that it was the nature of democracy itself that was at issue in the referendum. Should legislation be crafted and debated by elected representatives, or channelled via the executive’s prerogative over foreign policy into Brussels, to then be funnelled back to national capitals and then be rubber-stamped by national parliaments? This hollowing out of the democratic process that took place under the aegis of the EU was the strongest reason to ensure that the electorate was given a voice over membership of the Union itself. Irrespective of the outcome, the referendum energised democracy. With the Brexit vote, the possibility of restoring representative liberal democracy at the nation-state level exists. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, political elites have been put on notice by the referendum as to the fact that they can be held to account, even through the limited formal representative structures offered by the British state. Evading popular accountability has become more politically difficult since the referendum.
Yet there are also good reasons to be wary of repeat referendums. A direct national vote on the character of national democracy is a different kind of political decision than a direct national vote on the outcome of negotiations overseen by elected representatives: the latter clearly slides into plebiscitarianism. Instead of escalating plebiscitiarian rule, British political parties should take advantage of their post-Brexit boost in membership and public political engagement to rebuild democratic contestation at the national level. Doubtless opportunistic Remainers will rally behind the call for a second referendum of whatever complexion, in the hope of throwing anything they can in the way of Brexit. Yet Remainers’ criticisms of the political degradation resulting from Brexit risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for which they will be complicit: if plebiscitarianism is embedded in the functioning of the British state, then a democratic shot in the arm may end up becoming a debilitating drug.