Saturday, 26 November 2016

Brexit - Why Might We Need A Second Referendum?

Calls for a second EU referendum have got louder over the last few days.  So why might the UK need a second referendum?

It's worth stating two principles at the outset about what is a momentous decision to leave the EU:
  1. The UK should leave the EU if it is in the national interest to do so
  2. A referendum is the right way to decide, separate from party politics
The problem is the first referendum in June 2016 was unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, as set out below.  A second referendum would help to address these matters, and either:
  1.  Confirm a Leave decision, in which case Remainers should accept it and rally behind it in a way they cannot do today
  2. Reverse the decision, so the UK remains. The UK would then avoid what people then regard as Leaving being the wrong decision
Some suggest the cost of a second referendum of around £100 million would be a waste of money, especially if Leave were to win again. But this is compared to the OBR's estimate of a cost of £15 billion a year to public finances for years after leaving the EU. So £0.1 billion is a very good use of money should Remain win.  It is also worth it if  Leave win again, to galvanise the necessary support to make the best of Brexit and reduce that annual cost.

Some eminent politicians and commentators have suggested a second referendum would be an attack on democracy.   Quite the opposite.  The people would still be asked, and the Act setting up the second referendum should clearly state the decision would be accepted (which was not the case first time around).  If there's a win again for Leave, Parliament would pour over the details, but only in support of that decision.  That is entirely democratic.


The matters which make the first referendum unsatisfactory include:
  1. Since the June vote, a lot of information is becoming available.  The Government and the EU are taking the prospect of the UK leaving the EU seriously. That includes whether Brexit should be "hard" or "soft", our EU partners' attitudes (which were not public before the June vote), the practicalities of exit, the likely cost of the transition, and much more.
  2. In that context, the June vote was a vote "in principle".  A second would be more "in practice".
  3. There were too many lies from both the Leave and Remain camps.  It would be hoped that second time around there would be better control of facts. 
  4. In particular, the British public were effectively promised an extra £350m a week for the NHS on the side of a bus.  Whilst the likes of Nick Robinson proved this as woefully overstated, the bus was not withdrawn and conversations I subsequently overheard proved the correction had not been conveyed.  Now the OBR's best estimate is there will be £288m a week (£15bn a year) LESS, not more, once Brexit occurs in 2 years' time.
  5. Since June there has been a 10-15% devaluation of the pound against the US Dollar and the Euro. For businesses, exporters will potentially gain, whilst importers will lose. But for people PERSONALLY, the impact is all negative with an increase in costs of food, electronics and much else, as well as the cost of foreign holidays. Whilst some suggest the pound was over-valued anyway, it was Brexit that triggered the fall. 
  6. The result was a marginal 52%:48% decision, but with key areas such as Scotland, NI and London voting to Remain. That is not a "clear" result as the Prime Minister and others claim.  Indeed her constituency of Maidenhead, and those of brexiteers such as Redwood's in Wokingham and Goldsmith's in Richmond all voted clearly to Remain
  7. In summary, a second referendum would allow voters to vote on what Brexit really means, with the latest information.
Furthermore, there are strong indications that many voters did not take the first vote seriously enough.  They should be given a second chance given the enormity of the decision, whether that produces a Leave or Remain vote.

The polls before the referendum suggested Remain would win.  I'm not convinced voters took the prospect of Leave winning seriously enough:
  • In the days after the June vote, it was some time before I met a Leave voter who actually really voted to Leave, or clearly understood the implications.  For example a TV cameraman was going to vote Remain, but at the last moment voted Leave to "give Juncker a kicking".  A cabbie and four of his family had effectively tossed a coin.  A business man "liked Farage".  A London cabbie hadn't realised banks would likely scale down their operations in the City, which would mean less business for him. 
  • In Labour heartlands, it sounds like many Leave votes were about improving their standard of living, as a general anti-establishment vote.  Many of these areas benefit more from EU support than other areas, and a Leave vote was therefore counter-productive.  Did they really understand that?  Was leaving the EU what they really wanted?  Or just an improvement to living?
  • The proportion of youngsters voting was significantly lower than retired folk.  Youngsters are more likely to be away from home, working or at university.  In any case youngsters should be given a second chance to get out and vote, and be more prepared to ensure they have arranged a postal or proxy vote if necessary. 


The decision for the UK to leave the EU is momentous, and not to be taken on a single referendum that had so many issues.  A second referendum vote is necessary to ensure voters can take into account subsequent developments, and take the vote more seriously than they appeared to do first time around:  The first vote was "in principle" and the second would be "in practice".

The second vote would either:
  1. Confirm a Leave decision, in which case Remainers should accept it and rally behind it in a way they cannot do today.  This help to reduce the estimated £15 billion a year cost to the public finances of leaving, as well avoiding the lost jobs and wider economic impacts that figure implies.
  2. Reverse the decision, so that the UK Remains.
The likely cost of £100 million (£0.1 billion) is nothing compared to either of those outcomes.

How and when a second referendum would be held is another matter.  But in principle a second referendum should be held.  The right way to do so is the next question.  That's a separate discussion.

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