Note: Amended, longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 20th February 2019
At the beginning of this February, conventional Westminster-watch wisdom had it that the so-called People’s Vote (who did those 33 million votes cast on 23rd June 2016 belong to, I wonder?) aka Second EU Referendum, was dead in the water. The inquest was in full swing.
The Labour leadership effectively killed it by refusing to back a Commons amendment for it, complained alleged (and, as it turns out, no longer) ‘Conservative’ and Leave-Remain flip-flopper Sarah Wollaston. Accept it, we’re done with it, wrote Iain Martin in The Times: whatever air was actually left in its balloon has escaped.
The campaign for it is appalling, lifeless, and inadequate, wailed fanatical Remainer Ian Dunt at Politics UK. The People’s Vote campaigners know they’re championing a lost cause, declared Chris Bradford at Brexit Central. We’ve lost momentum, admitted the People’s Vote Group.
But then again, maybe not. Because during the last 15 days or so, the campaign appears to have sprung back into life. The underlying reasons are debatable, but little doubt exists in my mind that they have been boosted by Theresa May’s combination of slipperiness and intransigence towards her own MPs, but her contrasting weakness and appeasement when facing the Brussels negotiators, a dichotomy which The Conservative Woman‘s Co-Editor Kathy Gyngell comprehensively excoriated on 8th February.
It seems highly likely that it’s May’s latest Commons defeat, on Thursday 14th February, by 303 votes to 258 – the direct result of her devious insistence on amalgamating the previous week’s non-binding Caroline Spelman amendment (demanding the exclusion of No-Deal) with the main Government motion endorsing its desire to get the Northern Ireland backstop removed from her “Withdrawal” Agreement and replaced, and which thus caused her ERG MPs to abstain and so bring about that defeat – has re-emboldened the People’s Vote campaign.
If it ever really went away. On 3rd February, the SNP’s Joanna Cherry revealed that she had been, and still was, “working very closely” towards a People’s Vote with ‘Conservative’ Continuity-Remainers Dominic Grieve and Justine Greening. The Guardian has been reporting how campaigners have been insisting that the fight is not over yet.
“Bregret” articles from supposed Leavers-turned-Remainers demanding a second vote have started to re-appear in Remain newspapers. Campaigners are talking about a “breakthrough” in the struggle to secure a second referendum A ramping-up of the rhetoric in The People’s Vote twitter feed is definitely discernible, culminating in a new march and demonstration on Saturday 23rd March, just 6 days before our supposed departure date.
If it takes place, a second Brexit referendum will be the dirtiest, most rigged campaign in British political history. First, the franchise will be a target. I suspect there will be a drive this time to allow nationals of EU member-states residing in Britain but not on the Electoral Register to vote, which in 2016 they rightly were not. Predicting accurately which way they’re likely to vote isn’t especially hard.
I suspect also that there will be a repeat of the 2015-16 attempt to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year-olds. Remember, this was tried last time, and foiled only by the determined resistance of Tory Brexiteer backbenchers, who rightly saw it for the blatant gerrymandering attempt that it was. Given the prevalence of Remainer opinion within secondary and higher education common-rooms, forecasting correctly which way 16 and 17 year-olds would vote isn’t especially hard either.
Which prompts the thought that maybe there was more to the timing of last Friday, 15th February’s students’ “climate-change” protest than we assumed. Even if most were relishing the chance of a Friday bunk-off organised by teachers with an apparently remarkably easy access to Socialist Worker anti-capitalism, anti-Tory placards, images of politically-woke young people on a shouty demo can provide useful optics if you’re campaigning to include 16 and 17 year-olds in a new Brexit vote, whereas there’s a powerful argument, not for lowering the voting age but actually raising it.
The referendum ballot-paper question would be rigged. Rather than a binary choice between Remain and Leave as in 2016, some campaigners have made little secret of their desire to see one where there would be two Leave options – No-Deal/WTO or Theresa May’s BRINO-Deal, but only one Remain option. It doesn’t need a Mathematics PhD to work out the likely result of that. Just 34% could decide the winning option. How is that legitimate?
The combination of two major changes in the make-up of the electorate which would asked to consider essentially the same referendum question in under 3 years, the skewing of the question’s terminology, and the attempt to procure a different decision before the first one had even been implemented, would be enough reasons on their own to call the legitimacy of it into question, but there remains one even more powerful than that.
Trust is the over-arching basis on which, in a representative democracy, politics rests. For any referendum to be legitimate, those who vote in it must have trust that its outcome will be respected.
That was certainly the case with the EU Referendum of 2016. The Cameron Government itself, despite campaigning unashamedly for Remain, went out of its way to emphasise the momentousness, born of infrequency, of the event – “a once in a generation decision”. Even more importantly, it committed itself to obeying the instruction of the electorate, which it had itself voted to ask them to give it – “the Government will implement what you decide”.
On that basis, it’s beyond question that the 2016 EU Referendum was legitimate in the sense that the participants in it expected, and trusted, its outcome to be delivered. And this is true of both sides: would the Remain campaign have outspent the Leave campaign by the considerable margin that it did, and called in every favour from every acronymed international organisation it could think of, if it seriously expected the Government to say, in the event of a Remain victory, “Sorry, but we’re leaving anyway”?
But as we have seen, and has been comprehensively chronicled here and elsewhere, the Parliament which voted by 544 votes to 53 to ask the British people for an instruction has spent the two-and-a-half years since it was duly delivered doing its utmost to delay, dilute, ignore or reverse it.
If the democratic outcome of the first referendum can be so blatantly set aside in favour of a second, participants in a second referendum can therefore have no confidence whatsoever that its outcome would somehow be implemented if it was equally uncongenial to those charged with implementing it.
Any assurances to this effect that the 2016 losing side are giving with respect to a possible 2019 re-run are not worth paper they’re written on, and should be treated with the disbelief and scorn they deserve. No such trust is possible, A second referendum would be devoid of any democratic legitimacy, and is reason alone to oppose it as much as we can.
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