People often say a second referendum is undemocratic.

The first referendum was partially based on incorrect/dishonest information. After over two years of the general public viewing the government dealing with Brexit, people's views may have changed dramatically.

Also, a referendum is just a representation of public opinion that the Government can take into consideration, not a final vote.

The whole point of democracy is to represent the people's views in Government, right?

With these things considered, why do people refer to a second referendum as undemocratic?

  • 8
    Because they are opposed to the potential reversal of the results of the first referendum. Rather than say they have an opinion on the issue, they pretend they have a "loftier" concern about the democratic process. Nov 16, 2018 at 17:21
  • 8
    @CramerTV "when does it stop/If people truly understand the issues they shouldn't be changing their minds": but even if nobody changes their minds, vote totals will change, since the makeup of the electorate changes over time. This is a major reason why the US constitution calls for supermajority approval of constitutional amendments. Committing the country to a foolish course of action simply "because people didn't do their homework" is also not a good solution.
    – phoog
    Nov 16, 2018 at 17:30
  • 4
    I've never heard the argument, but if we voted one way where I live in America, and then two years later an inept government still can't manage to accomplish the goals laid out in the referendum, then there were calls to have a follow up vote, I would certainly place the charge that there was a measure of undoing the democratic process that has already taken place. So to me, there is some merit to the accusation. What UK law and typical political procedure says about this, I know nothing.
    – user2578
    Nov 16, 2018 at 18:20
  • 8
    Having a second referendum is no more undemocratic than having a new general election every few years. Circumstances change and what people want can change with them. Having clarity about what actually will happen as opposed to Project Fear VS Project Unicorns can only make a second referendum more valid.
    – Jontia
    Nov 16, 2018 at 23:25
  • 3
    It's a referendum, not a suicide pact.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 18, 2018 at 1:04

5 Answers 5


Very few people voted for "leave" or "remain" per se. Instead, there are goals that they believed would be achieved by leaving the EU or by remaining in the EU, they thought about which goals were most important to them, and voted to achieve their most important goals.

There are two problems: One, the consequences of leaving were not completely understood. At an extreme, the problem with the Northern Ireland border was not something I saw mentioned before the referendum or actually quite a while afterwards (I am told that people in Northern Ireland were aware and wer laughed off). And two, the outcome of negotiations of a "leave" deal were not understood. Whether the leave campaigners lied, or whether they were overly optimistic, or whether negotiators were just incompetent, the "leave" deal is nothing like what "leave" voters expected.

So now, more than two years later, the consequences of "Leave" are much better understood. So the question is: Is it undemocratic to have a second referendum, where people can have a vote based on a much better understanding on the consequences?

There is another question that can be asked: Is it democratic to make a decision that will have a very long term effect based on a small minority, when the natural change of demographics alone would have created a different decision only a few years later?

When you say "people often say it is undemocratic", you will find that most or all of those people are people who still want to leave, for whatever reason, and who want to avoid anything that could derail Brexit. Among them are lots of people who said openly that they would want another referendum if Brexit had failed. So people making the claim it is undemocratic mostly do that for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy, but with achieving the result they want.

I would say there is nothing undemocratic about repeating the referendum with a much more informed public, who understands the consequences of their vote much better, plus more of the future generations who are mostly affected by this will have the ability to vote.

  • 2
    Answer the question instead of asking two more of your own :)
    – Vorsprung
    Dec 1, 2018 at 11:10
  • "with a much more informed public" SOME of the public will be more informed... I wouldn't count on all of them.
    – UKMonkey
    Mar 29, 2019 at 18:01

In indirect (representative) democracies, referendums (being expressions of direct democracy) are to be organized for decisions that will affect the country for a long time. So long and so importantly, that the representatives return temporarily power back to the citizens for the decision, either because they recognize the right of the citizens to make a direct decision for such a critical matter, or because they just want to avoid taking that decision themeselves. Even if "officially" a referendum is not binding for the government, it is very difficult for a government to go against it.

It follows that when a referendum is organized, the citizens and voters should give a very long thought on how they will vote, trying to envision how the country will evolve by going one way, or the other. And I don't mean that in any narrow way, like trade for example. The "rules of the game" here are "Vote for the long term" -not for a few years as in parliamentary elections.

So I can understand in what sense somebody would say that it is "undemocratic" to have a 2nd referendum on the matter: we would violate the agreement that the vote was for the long term, the agreement on which the first referendum was based.

Does this imply that the matter is necessarily settled for say, "a generation" or something like that?

No. Because there is a situation that makes a 2nd referendum "democratic" even if so early after the first: if the society somehow realizes, say through repeated wide polling and repeated events, demonstrations, etc, that a majority of the citizens consistently want to have a 2nd referendum. In such a case, we "nullify" an instance of direct democracy (the 1st referendum) with another instance of direct democracy (the majority of public opinion favoring a 2nd referendum, and showing it in the pubic sphere repeatedly and in an unmistakable way).

  • 2
    "we would violate the agreement that the vote was for the long term, the agreement on which the first referendum was based": actually, the first referendum was presented as nonbinding. Given the disingenuous and probably illegal nature of the campaigns in favor of the prevailing result, it wouldn't be too hard to argue that it should not have been honored in the first place.
    – phoog
    Nov 18, 2018 at 0:19
  • @phoog I don't see how the "disingenous and probably illegal nature of the campaigns" (assuming that this is not a contested opinion but a wide consensus) may absolve citizens from their responsibilities. But also I don't see how any argument can rightfully ignore the result of a vote. Nov 18, 2018 at 1:26
  • 3
    The leave campaigns lied about the implications of the vote and probably violated electoral law. So people voted based on incorrect information. The assertion that the vote indicates a popular mandate for leaving the EU, therefore, is questionable, and the prime minister reasonably could have decided not to leave the EU. This is especially true since the referendum was nonbinding. It's rather like asking someone for advice about what color to paint the house and then claiming that the person gave strict instructions to paint the house green.
    – phoog
    Nov 18, 2018 at 5:06
  • 1
    @phoog "Claiming" ? It appears you question the validity of the vote counting. If you don't, then the result was indeed to paint the house green. The other argument, that "voters were misled", I am too tired to hear as an excuse for voters to shed their responsibilities. The "non-binding" nature of the referendum is legalese - I certainly would not want any specific person to take that decision. It will be a dark day when UK leaves the EU -but that does not change the fact that through the certainly imperfect majority rule, which is what we got, the citizens of UK decided in this manner. Nov 18, 2018 at 14:20
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    I don't question the vote count in the least. I am focusing not on the result itself, but on the significance of the result. It was explicitly to have been an advisory result, but has been taken as binding. The fact that the voters were misled is a reason to discount the advice: would you follow advice from someone after misinforming them about the choice you're facing?
    – phoog
    Nov 18, 2018 at 14:42

You tagged your question with -related tags, but you ask it in a general way. So let me give you a few thoughts, from to generic:

  • There was a referendum on EU membership in 1975. A snarky answer could be that if a second referendum on an issue is acceptable, then a third referendum must be acceptable as well.
  • It is not clear if the UK could retract the Article 50 declaration. It is clear that there are only four months left to do it if they can. That makes any new referendum now a slap-dash proposition.
  • Just how binding is a referendum, and on whom? While it was not legally binding, politically many significant actors committed themselves to abide by the results. Ignoring it was (and is) seen as a politically risky.
    • What would be the options on the ballot? It seems clear to me that there is no majority for a hard Brexit, or for no Brexit, or for any one option in between.
    • If there was an overwhelming majority in public opinion for one of the options, it would become politically feasible (possibly even politically advantageous) to ignore the non-binding referendum.
    • I also wonder if the EU would want the UK back with all the old opt-outs and special exceptions after all this drama.
  • It is usually a bad idea when a political system tries to bind future voters and leaders to a particular course of action. What voters decide now, voters in the future can override.
    • One could try to rank a direct referendum higher than a vote for legislators, so only another referendum can overturn referendum results. Then the ability to hold a new referendum would be a necessity, or the only way to overturn it would be a revolution.
    • One could make a referendum only binding until the next general election, arguing that the new batch of legislators represents a more current poll of the voters' opinion than the old referendum result.
  • It is incredibly dangerous to invalidate a referendum or election because of "dishonest" campaigning. Who makes that call? The government? A judge? Pretty soon any campaign flyers would have to be vetted by the "Ministry of Truth" ...
    Much better to leave the debunking to the other side. If they fail to uncover the lies, or if the voters vote for the lies anyway, so be it.

To answer your question, consider a simple follow-up question: If a second referendum is held, and Remain win, and then Leave allege that this win was based on incorrect/dishonest information, do you then propose a third referendum? Once you answer that question, you will understand why the call for a second referendum is undemocratic.

This kind of do-over democracy has a long and sordid history, and has been a common political tactic used by elite groups seeking to implement a major social change irrespective of the wishes of the electorate. The basic method of do-over democracy is simple: hold a vote on a desired policy or social change; if the vote goes your way, treat it as eternal and immutable; if it goes against you, treat it as transitory and illegitimate, and hold a new replacement vote as soon as possible. Rinse and repeat until the "correct" outcome is obtained.

With these things considered, why do people refer to a second referendum as undemocratic?

It is likely that people are familiar with the history of this tactic, and recognise it in the present calls for a do-over vote on Brexit. Most observers are perfectly well aware that the elite institutions of the UK were activists for the Remain position, and that the the same "do-over" would not be afforded to Leave if Remain had won the first referendum, and Leave had made analogous accusations of dishonesty (which incidentally, they have).

  • Sure, if there's a strong grassroots campaign for a 3rd referendum afterward then have one. Particularly if it's based on changing conditions, new EU regulations or policies. "A democracy that cannot change it's mind is not a democracy" - David Davis. And just so it's clear it's not as if Leave would have just gone, well that's it might as well get on with it if the Referendum had gone the other way. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36306681 so if it's ok to have a second referendum following one result, it's ok to have it after it goes the other way,
    – Jontia
    Dec 3, 2018 at 9:02
  • 1
    The first vote is so recent that it hasn't even been implemented yet; it is a bit premature to talk about "changing conditions".
    – Ben
    Dec 3, 2018 at 9:59
  • No. Because the Leave campaign didn't involve any details about the terms the UK would accept to Leave the EU. Even today, there's no clarity about Deal vs No Deal which are hugely different positions and "Deal" itself bares no relation to the promises (any of the widly different ones they offered) of the Leave campaign. That's about as much a changed condition as I can imagine. Promises vs Reality.
    – Jontia
    Dec 3, 2018 at 10:38
  • I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that if there is a second referendum, and Remain win it, then whatever subsequent Leave activism occurs will not be considered "a strong grassroots campaign" that is "based on changing conditions", such as to be sufficient (in your view) for a third referendum.
    – Ben
    Mar 28, 2019 at 23:28
  • If any subsequent leave grassroots activism comes up with a solid workable plan to leave that deals with the issues blocking the situation in parliament today, then I would be fine with a 3rd referendum. Until then...
    – Jontia
    Mar 29, 2019 at 0:09

The whole point of democracy is to represent the people's views in Government, right?

The whole point of democracy is as a theatre that tells the story that "the people" control "the government" and so the people are in a sense free to represent their views in the government they choose. Or in this case in the referendum decision they make

The set of actions and consequences that we call democracy is a collective decision-making method. Everyone has a vote. The choice with the most votes is the one that is acted on. The choices themselves are not set by the voters but by participating the voters accept responsibility for the choices.

In the UK usually, the choice is for one of two political parties in a general election. In the case of the referendum, it was Brexit or not Brexit

In both cases, the actual choice on offer does not represent "people's views". It's difficult to imagine how a system as simple as a binary choice could ever do that

However, the need to keep the illusion going that people control their own destiny and a valid decision to take responsibility has been made is there. So it's important that the original referendum is acted upon

If there is no action and then just another referendum then the essential part of democracy - of acting on the choice - is missing and so democracy is not served

Having another referendum instead of carrying out the Brexit project is anti-democratic for this reason

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