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‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce’: Karl Marx.

The world needs another opinion piece on Brexit like a hole in the head. In my defence I have rarely written about it in the past and I’m also in the odd position that something I advocated eight months ago, and which at the time struck most people as completely unrealistic, has now become a widely discussed and serious option.

This is the idea of a second referendum with three options, reflecting that there are now clearly three different positions on Brexit (no deal, EU negotiated deal, remain), none of which have majority support in Parliament or among the wider population. For months after I suggested this last December the idea remained obscure but then on Monday Justine Greening made the same suggestion (although with very little detail), and today The Times has a poll suggesting that about a third of the population are in favour (pretty high considering how few respondents will have even heard of the idea before they were asked their view).

While I have to admit it is gratifying when one’s apparently eccentric idea becomes mainstream (not that I’m getting much credit for it), my concern now is that this idea needs much more preparation. Specifically, it is vital that a Citizens Assembly is undertaken before such a referendum. The Assembly would make recommendations to Parliament regarding the terms on which the referendum is held. This reflects the successful experience in Ireland of the deliberative process before the referendum on a constitutional amendment to legalise abortion. But it also applies the insights of the report published last week by the Constitution Unit's Independent Commission on Referendums, a Commission which included such luminaries as David Runciman, Gisela Stuart, Jennie Watson and Deborah Mattinson as a well as three sitting MPs.

The report summary includes the following:

Detailed consideration should be given before a referendum is called to what the problems are that policy needs to address, what policy options can be developed for addressing these problems, what the strengths and weaknesses of these options are, and whether a referendum is the best way of making the decision.

To engage citizens as far as possible in these pre-referendum processes, consideration should be given to using innovative forms of deliberative democratic engagement such as citizens’ assemblies, alongside strengthened processes of parliamentary scrutiny. 

Wherever possible, a referendum should come at the end, not the beginning, of the decision-making process. It should be post-legislative, deciding whether legislation that has already passed through the relevant parliament or assembly should be implemented.

Before a second referendum there are some tricky issues to be resolved. Three in particular stand out:

1)    The voting system.
If there are three options it is assumed that voters will have second preferences and, given no option has a majority, these second choices will probably be crucial. However, if the vote is done on a conventional preference process, whereby the option with the fewest first votes drops out, then it is surely quite likely the middle option (the EU deal) will fall first. Yet this middle option is also likely to be the one with the most second preferences. It may, therefore, be fairer to have system in which voters can give two votes to the favoured option and – if they choose – one vote to their second favourite option. The drawback of this – in comparison to a preference system - is that the winning option probably won’t then command a majority.

2)    The choices.
It is surely important that each of the three options is laid out authoritatively and in greater detail than could be put on ballot paper. These longer statements would represent the full option being offered and campaigners for that option could then be reasonably expected not to diverge from that option during the campaign. But who would write these longer statements (this is particularly an issue for no dealers as the remain option is fairly straightforward and the May/EU deal would be public), and would there be any process whereby assertions made in these longer statements were scrutinised for accuracy?

3)    The rules.
Given the chicanery around Vote Leave and the ever growing capacity for manipulation through social media, how would rules on issues like spending and unofficial advertising need to be tightened? Fortunately the Constitution Unit Commission has some well-thought through proposals on this.

Two critical responses to this post might be that the Chief Executive of the RSA should avoid such shark infested political waters, and that the three option referendum is still a very long shot. To which my reply is, first, if we don’t find a way forward on Brexit, and one which empowers citizens, it is not just our relationship with the EU that is in question but our wider democratic system: we all have stake in trying to get out of this terrible and worsening mess. Second, for all its challenges and drawbacks the best reason for the second referendum with three choices is that there is no other alternative which does not anger and dismay more than half the population, furthermore this is at least an option which could – as I argued back in December – potentially have attractions for remainers, soft leavers and hard ones too.      


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