Nigel Farage, starved of publicity in the aftermath of the historic Brexit vote, has been causing somewhat of a stir this week – as he no doubt intended – with his comments on a second referendum on our membership of the European Union. “Maybe, just maybe,” the UKIP man said, “I’m reaching the point of thinking that we should have a second referendum…on EU membership.”
Let’s ignore the fact that Farage was simply seeking the attention he craves – even if it is to the detriment of the cause he claims to be the leader of – and actually look at the issue at stake here. Without any shadow of a doubt, a second referendum on Brexit would be the single worst thing this country could do to itself. In the short term, it would undermine the government’s negotiating position and incentivise Brussels to offer us the worst possible deal, but, in the long term, would also create more profound, deep-rooted socio-political problems which could tear our country apart.
The premise of Farage’s statement is, in itself, misplaced. He stated that a second referendum – in which he presumed the majority for Leave would be increased – would “kill off” the Remain campaign for good. Even if Leave did win, this would simply not be the case. The likes of Lord Adonis, Sir Nick Clegg and Tony Blair – who, by the way, refused to rule out the possibility of a third referendum in a recent interview – are ardent Europhiles who will never cease in their efforts to keep Britain in the European Union and overturn the result of the referendum. Another, increased vote for Leave would do nothing to deter them carrying on fighting.
It is also wrong to presume that Leave would necessarily win. Though the behaviour of Brussels in the aftermath of our vote for Brexit, combined with the belief of the vast majority of the public that the verdict of a democratic referendum should be respected, would make a Remain victory very unlikely, these are the most volatile political times in modern history – and nothing could be ruled out. And if the country were to vote Remain, we would find ourselves in one of the most serious constitutional crises we have ever experienced. Notwithstanding aggrieved Brexiteers’ inevitable calls for a third referendum – and how could they be reasonably refused? – we would have highly contentious legal questions to answer. Is Article 50 reversible? If it is, would we re-enter on the same terms of before, or be treated as a ‘new’ member and therefore be forced to join the Euro and Schengen? Would we need a new referendum to confirm the public’s consent to these terms? All of this would reduce Britain to a laughing-stock on the world stage and embroil us in a series of even more damaging legal and political disputes. It would also set a worrying and unsustainable precedent of perpetual referenda, with the result that this fundamental issue would never – and could never – be settled. As David Cameron said shortly before the Brexit vote: “The Leave campaign is wrong to say there’ll be a second referendum if we vote to remain in the EU. This is a referendum and not a neverendum.”
However, more profoundly, the social divides, so starkly revealed by the decision to leave the EU, would become irreparable. After all, one of the main demographics which propelled the Leave campaign to victory was those fundamentally disillusioned with ‘big politics’ and their elected representatives – partly constituting people who hadn’t even voted in general elections for generations – which felt the direction of the country was going in a direction they never wanted or consented to. They felt they were being governed by an unaccountable elite, in Westminster and Brussels, who paid little attention to their plight, who arrogantly dismissed their views towards immigration as bigoted; their desire for self-governance as nativist. What better way to aggravate this already grave distrust of politicians (a profoundly unhealthy phenomenon in any functioning democracy), and confirm suspicions of out-of-touch elitism, than to tell the people that they got it wrong, and must vote again? Rather than wasting precious time arguing over abstract constitutional matters – arguments which have ultimately little impact on people’s lives – we should address the pressing concerns which motivated people to vote for Brexit, and deliver on the choice the British people made in a free and fair referendum. To do otherwise would exacerbate already grave social problems and, perhaps, render them irremediable.
David Cameron, considering the possible downsides of calling a referendum, is reported to have said: “You could unleash demons of which ye know not.” This thought was to be prescient. But these demons would pale into insignificance when compared to those a second referendum would release. Another vote on Brexit would, in essence, create and aggravate a whole range of problems – political, legal, economic and, most importantly, social – whose consequences we know not.