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The Leave case for a second referendum

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In this short blog post I will try to convince you of two arguments that will seem at the outset completely counter-intuitive: first, the logical position of many Leave supporters should be to support a second EU referendum; second, that this referendum should contain three options. Let me explain.

Last night on Moral Maze I interviewed the avuncular and eloquent chair of the Leave means Leave campaign, Richard Tice. When I made the following assertion he agreed. To paraphrase, I said "next year won’t the country be faced with a choice between two options; an Article 50 deal largely imposed on us by the EU or leaving completely on WTO terms?" Mr Tice was very clear. In the view of his campaign the deal the Government seems to be edging towards – some form of customs union involving the UK accepting a great deal of EU regulation - would fail to implement the 2016 referendum result. This is a view which is widely held including on the Conservative backbenches and, I suspect, in the editorial offices of at least two national newspapers. The obvious question is this; if there are two very different leave options with very different implications who should decide which to choose? 

For remain supporters (like me) one of the few upsides of leaving the EU is that it might heal the long-standing wounds generated by deep disagreements about Europe and, more importantly still, enable those people who voted Leave to feel that they had been listened to and obeyed. But Mr Tice made pretty clear that, were we to leave on the only terms the EU is likely to agree, not only would his camp feel we had a lot further to go to achieve UK sovereignty but also that Leave voters should rightly feel betrayed.

We are therefore likely next year to have three viable policy options:

a) a request to rescind Article 50 so that the UK stays in the EU;

b) support the deal agreed by the Government and the EU;

c) reject the deal and leave on WTO terms.

On this basis there is surely an argument for a three option referendum. If this used a transferable vote system, voters would in effect have nine choices. They could vote for each option alone or for any option plus a second choice from the two others. In case this seems unfeasible, it is worth knowing that multiple-option policy referenda have been used in Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and many US states.

Remain supporters are likely to support such a referendum hoping the country would change its mind. But the intriguing implication of Mr Tice’s position is that he and his campaign should also support such a referendum, as it may be the only way to get the outcome they want. Finally, the Government too might want such a referendum because if they win it (with a transferable vote the middle option has an advantage), they might head off an ongoing campaign against the deal, a campaign which would threaten to continue the Conservatives’ thirty year internal war over Europe.

Many people have bemoaned the national split which was exacerbated by the 2016 vote and has arguably got worse since. But in a three option referendum (with nine possible ways of voting) the sides could become more fluid. Some people might say ‘WTO terms or nothing’ but others might, for example, say ‘I want a total exit but if we are going to continue to have a relationship with the EU I’d rather we were in, arguing for reform, than simply taking rules agreed by others’. Furthermore, the transferable vote would mean the winning option would probably end up with a significant majority once first and second choices had been added.

A second referendum with three options would reflect the real choices our country faces. It could have support from all sides of the debate. It would enable people individually and collectively to adopt more nuanced, less polarised, positions. Of course, there would be complications; nothing is perfect. But isn’t this imaginative solution better than the increasingly likely alternative; that we cease to be a member of the European Union but on terms rejected by a large proportion of those who voted Leave? 

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  • The problem with a second referendum is the idea that: "you got it wrong last time you voted so we need you to vote again". As we have seen many times, when the EU gets a result it doesn't like, it doesn't change to address voters concerns, it just makes a few minor adjustments and requires another vote. e.g. With the EU Constitution being re-presented as the Lisbon Treaty.


    As a leaver, I might be prepared to consider another referendum if the EU would take some substantive steps to address the concerns that led a majority to vote to leave. However, I have never seen any sign of the EU listening to its citizens' concerns and changing direction. It didn't do it before the referendum in response to David Cameron's requests. The drive for ever greater political union is something that must not be questioned.

  • I would argue that the original referendum, with a potential outcome of such significant change and complexity, should have required a significant majority in order to abandon the status quo. Many simpler organisations require > 60% or > 70% of the vote to instigate change. This is arguably the real shame (although would not necessarily have helped divisions). Perhaps, given where we are, your option a) should require > 60% of the vote in order to 'prove' that remain is the clear preference (I wouldn't be surprised if it achieved this given how tiresome 'Brexit' is becoming).

  • As empathetic as I am towards the idea of any action that serves to heal the grievous breach in our nation caused by the last referendum - a need recognised as both cogent and compelling by those across the political spectrum - I wonder whether all three of these options are 'viable' in the first instance, doubt whether option (a) is even possible, and question whether a further refendum won't do more harm than good.

    The EU in June 2016 was a different place to the EU as it is in the Winter of 2017. In most cases, in discussion with those who voted Remain, what they want to go back to is the pre-2016 EU. That is simply no longer possible. Free of the restraining shackles of the UK, the EU has already moved ahead in areas previously forbidden or discouraged by the UK; an integrated EU army is already in formation, compulsory Euro currency participation is in train for all new members (or returning members such as the UK), an integrated Finance Ministry is slowly overcoming German objections, Martin Schulz echoes Macron in calling for a United States of Europe within eight years, an EU President with plenipotentiary powers is already under discussion, promoted by M. Juncker. On top of this, the UK's remaining budget rebate would disappear - making membership a substantially greater tax burden than it was pre-2016. To be frank, they also simply don't want us as we were before - our wealth is welcome, but our former influence is not.

    The past, even such a recent past, really is a distant country to which there can be no return. There can be no cancellation of the Article 50 notification without a concommitant agreement from the British people to join an EU on completely different terms to those on which we left - which itself would need prior agreement from the EU as to the conditions the UK would have to meet (switch to Euro within 3 years or whatever).

    I also doubt whether option (c) could actually be termed 'viable' despite the assurances of arch Leavers, particularly if a negotiated agreement is possible.

    But worst of all instead of healing the divisions in our nation, I fear this approach would actually make things much worse. As a committed Localist I am already fearful that in the face of recent proposals from leading Remainers including Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon to federalise Britain, the Centre will act to seize even more closely those things that otherwise we - with the RSA playing a leading role - are working so hard to devolve to cities and communities. 

    Already the rhetoric is becoming bitter and constructive dialogue between the two sides is difficult. So my own plea is for no more referenda, no more divisive actions, no more Balkanising words, and no more bitter rhetoric. This morning it seems we have at least in outline a deal that Remainers may take some consolation will not be all that Leavers desire; Leavers may take some consolation that whatever the compromises, the democratic will has prevailed and we are leaving the EU.

    And we - both the professional staff and Fellows of the RSA - have an opportunity to treat the wounds, to rehabilitate the injured polis, to rejoin the sundered parts and make the best deal we can of what we have.

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