This House would have a second Brexit referendum before leaving the EU

On the 23rd June 2016 the UK decided to leave the European Union. 17,410,742 voted to leave against 16,141,241 voting to remain.[1] But this did not really settle the issue of what happens to the UK’s relationship with Europe; Brexit is likely to be the defining question in United Kingdom politics for the next couple of years – possibly even considerably after the UK has actually left the European Union. The most important issues surrounding Britain’s leaving the European Union are to be settled in negotiation between the British government and the European Union; the terms of leaving, and what deal the UK gets after it has left in terms of the areas where the UK does still wish to have a relationship with the EU. However, the results of this negotiation, or even just how it is going will affect numerous other areas of policy both in the UK, and to a lesser extent in the EU. The effects will be felt in terms of economic growth, trade, who can stay and immigrate to the UK and vice versa, and potentially even peace in Northern Ireland among numerous other areas.

The importance of the issue inevitably regularly leads to the question of ‘should there be a second referendum to leave?’ A referendum would act both as a confirmation of the first (or otherwise) and would provide a check on the terms negotiated between Britain and the EU.

For a second referendum to occur there would clearly need to be legislation through parliament followed by a campaign. It seems unlikely that the current government would desire this to occur. It becomes much more likely should Parliament reject the deal with some politicians, such as London Mayor Sadiq Kahn having suggested it may be the only way to break the paralysis that would result from such a vote.[2]

Title 
Public sovereignty
Point 

The government is here to serve the people. The concept behind a referendum is public sovereignty, the people themselves are the ones who get to decide. Having had one referendum it has already been agreed that this is an issue where it should not be up to our representatives in Parliament to decide, rather it is an issue for direct democracy.

Having started the issue, the people have a right to determine the result. In Parliament there is not just a single vote on an issue. Rather there are three readings of a bill in each house. Then there is consideration of amendments from the house that did not initiate the bill often with parliamentary ping pong. Throughout this MPs get multiple opportunities to vote, both on the whole bill and on individual amendments.[1] So why should one general vote be considered final and definitive when it comes from the people?

[1] ‘Passage of a Bill’, parliament.uk, https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/passage-bill/

Counterpoint 

The people have set the general principle. It is up to the Government, overseen by Parliament to implement the will of the people as shown by the referendum. We have a parliament precisely so that we have a body of people who have the time to go through a process and consider changes in detail. This is not something that a direct democracy can manage.

Title 
The referendum was only advisory
Point 

The vote to leave the EU was not binding on the government, it was advisory. Unlike in the referendum on implementing the Alternative Vote the European Union Referendum Act did not demand that the result be implemented just that there should be a vote.[1] This helped ensure that the Government and Parliament had flexibility on issues such as the triggering of article 50.[2]

As it was advisory it cannot be said to be final; it was always assumed there would be a second chance, whether that be through parliament or the people as the government would need to decide whether to follow that advice, and then how it would do so.

This also may have had an impact on the vote itself. Because it was advisory, or simply because they thought leave was sure to lose, there were people who voted to leave who as a protest vote. They should get the chance to rectify their mistake through a second vote.

[1] ‘Was the EU referendum “advisory”?’, Full Fact, 8 November 2016, https://fullfact.org/europe/was-eu-referendum-advisory/

[2] ‘Article 50’, The Lisbon Treaty, www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html

Counterpoint 

It is wrong to state that the vote was advisory. Yes, it required Parliament to put it into effect but no one would ever consider simply not implementing the ‘advice’ from the people. It would be logically incoherent to call a referendum to give the people the choice only to deprive them of it by considering their vote to simply be advice that can be ignored as and when the government desires.

If someone makes a protest vote then that is their legitimate choice. But that does not invalidate the result. They simply need to accept that the made a mistake in assuming the vote was meaningless. It was a meaningful vote and has to be made into one.

Title 
Circumstances may change
Point 

‘When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?’ paraphrasing economist Keynes the public must be allowed to change its mind as circumstances change. This is also the position of the British Parliament; David Cameron introduced the fixed-term parliament act in 2011 which created a five year period between general elections, but this did not bind parliament from having an early general election in 2017.[1]

In exactly the same manner a referendum would not bind the public from having a second referendum. If the facts change they are entitled to vote again due to the different circumstances. There have clearly already been large changes in circumstances. Many promises or threats, on both sides of the campaign, have not been born out. To take two of the most prominent the returning £350million a week has been discredited, while there was no immediate Brexit crash. As the final outcome of a leaving deal becomes clear so circumstances change. All sides will have a much better idea of what leaving means, and some may well consider it to not be the event they voted for. This being the case they should have the chance to change their minds.     

[1] ‘Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011’, House of Commons Library, 27 April 2017, http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06111

Counterpoint 

Circumstances are constantly changing but that is not a reason to be constantly having new votes. Should there be a vote to remain in next time and the EU only allows this with concessions from the UK should the public have to vote a third time?

The public voted on the general broad-brush principle, not the details of an agreement. That principled vote will remain valid regardless of what the final agreement is. The options, in or out, will remain the same. We will simply know with more clarity what each means.

Title 
The leave campaign may have broken the rules meaning it was not a fair election
Point 

The leave campaign bent, or possibly even broke, electoral rules in terms of finances, and use of personal data. Different leave campaigns Vote Leave and BeLeave shared offices, with Vote Leave providing up to £625,000 to be used in BeLeave advertising which got around election finance limits. Some remain campaigners, such as Gina Miller, have seized on this to demand a second referendum.[1]

It goes further; Helen Mountfield QC and Clare Montgomery QC of Matrix Chambers have concluded there is a “prima facie case” that electoral offences were committed that require investigation and decision on whether to refer to the Crown Prosecution Service.[2] Such violations are therefore serious. As the vote was comparatively close it is open to question whether these practices may have swung the vote. As such there must be a second vote to confirm, or change, the outcome of the first.

[1] Miller, Gina, ‘BeLeave revelations taint the Brexit result. There must be another vote’, The Guardian, 27 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/27/beleave-revelations-taint-brexit-result-shahmir-sanni-disclosure-funds

[2] Townsend, Mark, and Cadwalladr, Carole, ‘Vote Leave members ‘may have committed criminal offences’’, The Guardian, 26 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/mar/26/vote-leave-members-may-have-committed-criminal-offences 

Counterpoint 

The referendum was indeed not fair. But it was unfair in favour of remain, not leave. Almost the entire of the establishment; the government, most MPs, main trade bodies, and the majority of big business were strongly in favour of remaining. The leave side was therefore clearly the underdog.

Title 
Other countries have had second referendums
Point 

The idea behind referendums is to give a decision to the people to decide on an issue that has an impact on them. This remains the case. There is no doubt that Brexit will have an immense impact, and for a second referendum that impact will be better known as the terms will have been laid out. As such referendums are not one time only possibilities. The UK has had very few referendums, yet two of the three have been on EU membership, it should be clear that there can be a third.

Other countries have held considerably more referendums, and it is certainly not unknown for countries to revote on the same issue. Three countries’ voters have rejected EU treaties only change their vote in a second referendum. Denmark voted against the Maastricht treaty only a year later to vote in favour. The same happened in Ireland, with both the Nice and Lisbon treaties. In each case there was reassurance about the fears expressed that lead to a no vote leading to a yes vote. This shows that even without substantial changes there can be a shift in perceptions leading to a shift in position, as such a second vote would be legitimate.[1]

[1] Atikcan, Ece Özlem, ‘Asking the public twice: why do voters change their minds in second referendums on EU treaties?’, LSE European Politics and Policy, 19 October 2015, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/10/19/asking-the-public-twice-why-do-voters-change-their-minds-in-second-referendums-on-eu-treaties/

Counterpoint 

A country can’t simply go about having second referendums just because one side does not like the result. If second referendums do occur then the results of any other referendums are undermined as voters will increasingly believe that their vote wont matter, or alternatively that they can make a protest vote as their vote can always be reversed later. When there is a referendum it needs to be final.

Title 
Parliamentary sovereignty
Point 

There is no need for a second referendum as it is Parliament that is sovereign. Major changes in British Law require the consent of parliament, acting as representatives of the people (through having been elected) in order to be enacted. The government has already promised “there will be a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal where parliament can choose to either accept that deal or we can leave without a deal”.[1] Once parliament has given its backing the people themselves have as a result of each MP representing the electorate in their constituency. There would be no need for a second referendum.

[1] Reuters Staff, ‘Parliament will have a meaningful vote on Brexit deal- PM’s spokesman’, Reuters, 26 March 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-vote/parliament-will-have-a-meaningful-vote-on-brexit-deal-pms-spokesman-idUKKBN1H2194

Counterpoint 

It is clearly inaccurate that parliamentary sovereignty means that there is no need for consulting the people. If that were the case there would have been no need for the first referendum. Moreover, there would be no need to pay any attention to the results of that referendum.

In practice Brexit, and the settlement it entails is something that will have an impact over more than the length of one parliament so seeking a mandate on implementation of Brexit directly from the electorate would be highly desirable.

Finally it is clear that this ‘meaningful vote’ is no such thing. A vote to leave, or leave without any deal with the EU is not meaningful. It ignores the option of staying in the EU which has to be on the table.

Title 
A referendum could not provide the nuanced policy the UK needs
Point 

It is clear that part of the problem with Brexit is how broad brush the vote to leave was; apart from leaving it did not say anything about our continuing relationship. Was the vote for more sovereignty? To be able to reduce migration? To get out of the single market and customs union? No one knows because the motivation was different for each voter. This has shown the difficulty with relying on a referendum for guidance. A new referendum would have similar problems. Unless it were to be multiple choice we would be left with the question; does the electorate want leave but not on these conditions? Does it want a harder or a softer Brexit? It is far better to leave this to parliament which can have votes on each issue that comes up rather than one big public vote.

Counterpoint 

An ambiguous result will be far less of a problem in a second referendum. It would be clear that the vote is a yes or a no on the particular deal that has been agreed between the UK and the European Union. This would mean that there would not be contradictory campaigning being made as in the first campaign where some groups in favour of leaving were arguing against too many immigrants arriving, while others, like BeLeave wished to end discrimination in migration policy.[1] The debate would be about a specific set of policy positions laid out in the agreement to leave.

[1] Cadwalladr, Carole, and Graham-Harrison, Emma, ‘Why young, inexperienced BeLeavers were perfect for the Brexit campaign’, The Guardian, 24 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/mar/24/beleave-cambridge-analytica-brexit-boris-gove  

Title 
Britain should honour the 2016 vote
Point 

The result of the vote on the 23rd June 2016 was clear. It was a vote to leave the European Union and that is what Britain must do. David Cameron, the Prime Minister who called the referendum said at the time “I am absolutely clear a referendum is a referendum, it’s a once in a generation, once in a lifetime opportunity and the result determines the outcome ... You can’t have neverendums, you have referendums.”[1] We should not be going back to the public only a few years after offering them ‘a once in a generation vote’ which it was promised would decide the issue.[2]

[1] Reuters Staff, ‘Cameron says no second EU referendum if result is close’, Reuters, 17 May 2016, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-cameron/cameron-says-no-second-eu-referendum-if-result-is-close-idUKKCN0Y81VK

[2] Note: This has only been added because it is the most commonly made argument against a second vote. If debating it however it is not a good standalone argument.

Counterpoint 

While the result cannot be disputed it was not of such a margin that it can be argued that it should be honoured in all circumstances.

First, it needs to be remembered that not everyone voted. Polling has shown that those who did not vote, 12.9 million people, were roughly 2:1 in favour of remain.

Second, changing demographics favour remain. Older people were more likely to vote leave, while younger to vote remain (and 16-17 year olds were excluded despite a campaign to give them the vote). This means that based on the demographic profile the vote would be reversed by the time the UK finally leaves.[1]

[1] Low, Adrian, ‘Brexit is not the will of the British people – it never has been’, LSE Brexit, 24 October 2016, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2016/10/24/brexit-is-not-the-will-of-the-british-people-it-never-has-been/

Title 
There is no time to hold a second referendum
Point 

The timetable for Brexit is already tight so it is very difficult to see where a referendum could fit in. It would need to be done after negotiations have been completed, which given a history of EU negotiations going to past their initial deadlines means this likely won’t be settled until March 2019. Even if the agreement is done in line with the timetable – by October 2018 – there is little time. If there were to then be a debate and vote in Parliament that would not be complete until the end of the year or even January.[1] There would then at best be two and a half months to have a campaign and referendum. If the referendum were to happen later, into the transition period, there is no guarantee the UK could get back in.

[1]  Walker, Nigel, ‘Brexit timeline: events leading to the UK’s exit from the European Union’, House of Commons Library, Briefing paper No.07960, 12 March 2018, p.28, http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7960/CBP-7960.pdf

Counterpoint 

The ideal time would be in the first couple of months of 2019, once the deal is pretty much known, but before the UK. It would be best if the deal on how we will leave, and what our continuing relationship with the EU will be were fully agreed before a referendum takes place. However both sides have at each stage been making commitments and the overall shape of the final agreement gets clearer and clearer. There was no agreement on what leave would mean in the first referendum so there need not be a set in stone final agreement for a second referendum either. Negotiations could even continue at the same time. 

Title 
A second referendum does not just affect the UK but will impact on the negotiations
Point 

It is not just the UK’s decision whether a second referendum will have any significance. It affects all the other members of the EU. With the triggering of article 50 it may already be too late for a referendum to have any meaning. The UK if it wanted to vote, and decided remain, it would at the very least find that it does not have all the privileged opt outs it had before – such as the rebate which reimburses 66% of the imbalance in the UK’s payments and receipts, around €6.1 billion.[1] But it may even find that it simply can’t get back in and needs to go through he accession process. This would likely be expedited but has in some cases taken years – Turkey has been an applicant since 1987 and is still years away from joining.[2]

Even worse if there were to be a second referendum on staying in the EU, or even the suggestion of one, it would impact on negotiations. The European Union would be encouraged to play hardball to try and ensure that a second vote is more likely to vote to remain.

[1] ‘The UK 'rebate' on the EU budget: An explanation of the abatement and other correction mechanisms’, European Parliament, 18 February 2016, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI%282016%29577973

[2] ‘Turkey’, European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/countries/detailed-country-information/turkey_en

Counterpoint 

European leaders are opposed to Brexit. Emmanuel Macron has said the “door is still open” implying it is possible to halt Brexit if there is the will on the British side, something a referendum remain vote would provide.[1]

Yes, having a new referendum would have an impact on negotiations but that goes both ways. The British site would be aiming to win a new referendum with what they win as an agreement so will be more inclined to take public opinion into account. The European Union on the other hand may not take a harder line, it may even encourage the opposite; more concessions for if the UK does remain in to encourage the UK to remain.

[1] Vinocur, Nicholas, and Saeed, Saim, ‘Macron: ‘Door still open’ for UK if it changes mind on Brexit’, Politico, 13 Jne 2017, https://www.politico.eu/article/macron-door-still-open-for-uk-if-it-changes-mind-on-brexit/

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