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There's a lot of talk in the UK these days about how holding a second referendum on Brexit would be "undemocratic" and "go against the spirit of referendums". However repeating a vote doesn't seem all that strange in a democracy. The UK itself holds parliamentary elections every 5 years or even more frequently if the government dissolves parliament. Other countries routinely hold elections every 4 years or even 2 years in the case of US Congress.

So what's the big deal about holding a second Brexit vote? Wouldn't it be akin to choosing a new government after a few years? Why can voters change their mind about who runs the country but cannot change their mind about the outcome of a referendum?

  • In a referendum, people don't usually vote on the question, they are an opportunity to express anger or support. For example, the AV Referendum in the UK was actually used to hammer the Lib Dems for going into the coalition, the EU Referendum was largely about immigration and nostalgia and the North East England devolution referendum was a personal reflection of John Prescott's popularity – Dave Gremlin Apr 9 at 9:19
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    The fundamental agreement of democracy is that citizens mutually agree to abide by the outcome of the vote, even if they're on the losing side this time. The winners get to carry out their agenda, and there's another election later. In the case of Brexit, the winners haven't gotten to carry out their agenda. The losers have refused to abide by the outcome of the vote, and instead are sabotaging and delaying in hopes that some miracle gives them the final victory. That's the problem! – user15103 Apr 9 at 14:37
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    @Joe: I'm not sure that is true. After all, the Tories were and continue to be in power, and the Tories are most associated with Leave (obviously, not all Tories want that). It seems to me that the problem with getting Leave done is that Leave does not agree on exactly what "leave" means, so they can't get a majority to agree to the terms of it. By contrast, "remain" has only one set of terms: stay in the EU, so all Remainers are united (though some might be willing to accept a softer Brexit just to get past the current impasse). – Nicol Bolas Apr 10 at 16:03
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The difference between such one-off referendums and general elections is that everyone knows the general election results are only 'used' for the next term. Indeed, when you vote for a politician in a general election (assuming this takes place in a stable democracy) you know you will get another vote in a certain number of years time.

The difference with the Brexit referendum is that it wasn't clear how it would be implemented. Given the gravity of the matter in the referendum, even those opposed took it seriously, however, it was still a non-binding referendum, it was advisory. The fact that rules weren't / aren't clear to everyone means that people will have different opinions on it. In particular, those who got the result they wanted won't want another referendum and those who think they can win this time might want one.

The big problem with doing such referendums over and over again is that it continues the uncertainty. And even after a second referendum, whatever the outcome, there will be calls for a third, etc. The big problem here is obviously that the rules weren't clear when they had the first referendum. For example, they could have said: we will have a referendum now and then we agree with all parties involved that that result will be it, at least for the next X years. That way, at least everyone knows where they stand and what the result means for them.

Then there's the problem that's specific to Brexit, it's a very complicated issue, much more complicated then installing a couple of hundred new politicians and some staff. As you say, some countries have elections every few years, but in the case of Brexit it has taken that long already to prepare for actually leaving. And that is only the first step, then the UK will want to negotiate their future relationship.

All in all, the problems are twofold: the parties involved hadn't pre-agreed the rules (not even as a 'gentlemen's agreement') and the matter at hand is too complex to change one's position every few years.

  • I'm inclined to agree with you but where you say " they could have said: we will have a referendum now and then we agree with all parties involved that that result will be it, at least for the next X years" the-then Government did pledge to abide by the result before the referendum and at the subsequent general election the Conservative and Labour manifestos pledged to abide by it too. – Lag Apr 9 at 6:54
  • @Lag yes, the key wordbeing subsequent. Those other parties should have made their position clear beforehand. Another reasonable position (to take before the vote) would have been (for a party) to only respect the outcome if there was a clear majority of some margin. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Apr 9 at 7:30
  • "Another reasonable position (to take before the vote) would have been (for a party) to only respect the outcome if there was a clear majority of some margin. " - of course, but they didn't and that's part of the circumstances we have to cope with now. – Lag Apr 9 at 13:42
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If the subject-matter or circumstances of the "repeat" referendum are sufficiently different, there is no difference from elections.

Yeah, I know the typical argument against referendum repeats is the "democratic deficit" they supposedly have by asking the "same question". (I'll come back to this.) But before we get to that: one could ask the question in reverse: why would a candidate that has failed an election be allowed to run again later for the same office?! After all, the public said no to him. Should he be allowed to run until he gets his way? Of course, even if all candidates are exactly the same on a later ballot, chances are something has changed: their platforms etc.

Now as for the "same question" referendums, the much criticized repeat referendums for EU Treaty changes/adoptions didn't ever have the exact same question, even if it was nominally the same on paper. There were in fact concessions and renegotiations before the "same" question was asked in all cases. The referendum repeat that was preceded by least concessions was the one with the lowest initial turnout: Nice 2001 in Ireland. In that case, the changes were more declarative than legally binding and efforts focused on a better campaign. For the other repeats, the concessions were more substantive and based on the specific objections of the "no" campaigns; after the Danish referendum of 1992, there was a legally binding [under international law] document agreed by all EU heads of state, although its position within the EU legal framework was considered somewhat awkward. The Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 also resulted in substantive concessions; these took a legal form similar to the solution to the 1992 Danish problem, but it was also boosted by an agreement to include a specific part of it in a future EU treaty, as to clarify its position in EU law as well. (The convenient legal vehicle that was found for the latter was Croatia's accession treaty of 2011.)

Finally, how does this relate to Brexit referendum(s)? The more concrete proposals I know about don't simply ask for a repeat (although I have no doubt the vague notion may have been publicly discussed). Instead the proposal(s) I know about were for a "confirmatory" referendum, meaning the now-concrete deal would be voted on, instead of a general/vague idea. Arguably this is somewhat different than a new referendum following concessions/renegotiation. But in either case, the public has substantially new information that it can use to answer the "same" question, which in the case of a Brexit confirmatory referendum wouldn't even be nominally the same. (Bercow would be pleased.)

And if I'm allowed an imperfect but hopefully still informative analogy: I would compare the 2016 Brexit referendum to an "informal" poll in the EU Council proceedings, which asks each member for their position in principle, at the start of a discussion, but without binding the member to agree to whatever final legal document is produced. I have a couple of arguments in support of this: unlike the 2011 AV referendum, the law authorizing the 2016 one did not make the referendum result legally binding. Furthermore, the uncertainty regarding the exact separation conditions (that had yet to be negotiated) give it this "agreement-in-principle" character, similar to the EU Council "informal" polls. (The analogy only goes so far, of course: there is no record kept of the EU Council's informal polls, something that's impossible to do with a nationwide referendum.) The confirmatory referendums proposed (in the amendments I know about) would, in contrast, be legally binding and also about a specific way of exiting the EU.

Finally, I will concede that the topic of repeat referendums is still controversial and does not have a lot of precedents. But even research that has been substantially more critical of the past EU referendum repeats than my position above, notes that, in principle:

A repeated referendum may be justifiable if it occurs for non-tactical reasons or if safeguards stand in place to prevent the manipulation of a repeated vote. For example, a repeated referendum appears warranted if legal conventions require multiple votes for major policy changes. In a similar vein, a repeated vote may be justifiable if new facts are disclosed on an issue central to a past referendum. Also, a repeated referendum may be defensible if an independent, politically diverse panel oversees the conditions under which a referendum will be repeated. If, however, a government will only hold a repeated vote when an initial outcome contradicts the plans of its leaders, repeated referendums may, in fact, strategically constrain contestation over policy and benefit those in power (Carson and Martin 1999; Walker 2003). Overall, then, repeated chances may be normatively defensible if they occur for non-tactical reasons and if mechanisms stand in place to prevent the exploitation of referendums by those in government.

As for the main criticism of this latter research advances of past EU referendums: it is the alleged focus that the EU leaders had on "voter incomprehension" as a reason for repeat. Which I think it's true for the 2001 Nice treaty in Ireland, but less so for the other ones. The argument against a repeat due to incomprehension is that no repeats of EU referendums have been done in cases where polling suggested the public had a weak understanding of the topics, but the referendum result was "yes" (and this is illustrated with Spain).

And extending this line of reasoning, arguably one could claim that incomprehension of the consequences of Brexit (at the initial referendum) is not a reason to repeat that referendum. But there is clearly a tension between "new facts on the ground justifies repeat" and "no repeat is justifiable just due to incomprehension". There is a grey area here. Often enough a potential issue may have been mentioned in an initial discussion (or referendum campaign, e.g. difficulty of agreeing good separation terms with EU) but actual negotiations do bring new facts as to what the possible mutual agreement really looks like, and this arguably is new information.


And I know this is getting long, but here's fairly good cross-domain comparison (campaign strategy and actual concessions) of the three EU repeat referendums:

In all three of the second referendums, the Yes campaigners used two new strategies to tie the hands of No campaigners. After the initial rejection, the government sought reassurances from the EU on the controversial themes of the first campaign, effectively allowing them to ask the same question again. Having changed the context successfully, the Yes side could thereby frame the question differently. To achieve this they used their second strategy, which was to raise the stakes of a second rejection. This time the Yes side could use the risk factor, which was more available to the No side in the first rounds. Importantly, Denmark initially designed these strategies, which the Irish learned and adopted later on.

In the first rounds in both countries, as expected, the No campaign’s arguments tapped into the sensitive subjects relevant to society. In Denmark, the No side argued that the Maastricht Treaty would lead to loss of Danish sovereignty in a new United States of Europe, which would undermine or abolish the Danish currency and Danish citizenship. In Ireland during both the Nice and Lisbon referendums, the No campaigners repeatedly argued that the treaties would change Irish laws on abortion, lead to a loss of sovereignty, undermine Ireland’s military neutrality, and remove its permanent EU Commissioner.

In the second round, however, the arguments changed. The Yes side argued that Europe had listened to the Danish/Irish people and responded with legal guarantees, which were specifically on the themes raised by the No side. With the Edinburgh Agreement, Denmark would have four opt-outs in the fields of European citizenship, economic and monetary union, defence policy, and justice and home affairs. Ireland, on the other hand, gained guarantees concerning its military neutrality with the Seville Declaration after the Nice referendum, and on the Irish commissioner, competency over tax rates, abortion, neutrality, and workers’ rights after the Lisbon referendum.

In addition to the arguments on the guarantees, the Yes side emphasised the consequences of a second No vote such as potential exclusion from the EU and economic costs. [...]

As you probably know, the last issue, fear of economic impact has played a substantial role in delaying a no-deal Brexit in Parliament, even in the absence of an actual 2nd referendum.

I think the most diffcult aspect of a 2nd Brexit referendm is what to actually put on the ballot; there's the obvious issue of vote-splitting the leave side between no-deal and (e.g.) May's deal. And of course there's the issue of the voting system to use if more than two choices end up on the ballot. Neither of these have much to do with the mere referendum-repeat problem, but they do raise the "neverendum" perspective because if Parliament could not decide on how to Brexit (indicative votes) how would the public do that better? N.B. there was a poll using the Condorcet method which did declare May's deal as the winner via 2nd best-choice for most voters. But agreeing on the method to conduct a 2nd referendum is thus very likely to influence its outcome. Hence reluctance to agree to it in the first place. And of course it's easier to deflect attention from the more substantive issues by discussing it in mere democratic deficit terms.

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When a politician is elected, the voters assume that he or she will be put in office very soon. How many times can you say in a western democracy that a politician was elected, but never actually took office?

The decision by the UK to leave the EU was elected by the voters, but the UK is still in the EU. If the UK holds another referendum and the Remainers win, who's to say that the Leavers can't demand a 3rd referendum? Or 4th? What's the point?

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    You're applying two different standards. On the one hand side you're comparing well functioning democratic voting with a referendum that's fuming with lies and campaign finance law violations. In less well functioning "democracies" calls to re-run elections are a regular occurrence. Whether they do occur is another matter, but you can't just assume that a well run democratic vote compares with something reminiscent of a banana republic. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 8 at 18:47
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    @DenisdeBernardy are you sure general elections in stable democracies are completely free of lies and don't have campaign finance law violations? I think that's wishful thinking. Some examples: G.W. Bush, Obama & Trump. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Apr 8 at 18:58
  • @JJJ: Not sure at all. My initial comment on this answer literally was: "Hillary Clinton? Al Gore?" But then he edited the answer so it's much more detailed, so I switched to the one above. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 8 at 19:00
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    @DenisdeBernardy Many Leavers say that the Remain campaign is also fuming with lies. Who is the UK to believe? – user3163495 Apr 8 at 23:05
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Simply put they are different beasts and more importantly perceived to be different beasts.

We relatively frequently run general elections with the expectation and per the rules that we'll have another one in five years.

We relatively rarely run referendums and we do so with the expectation that the result will be abided by. Two have been legally binding on the Government. The EU referendum was advisory but the Government pledged to abide by the result beforehand.

From a different point of view, they are the same in respect of the expectation that the thing that won the votes will be the thing that is delivered. The referendum result has not been delivered.

(I'm inclined towards Remain but as much as I think the whole thing is a shambles for myriad reasons I think we risk even more apathy in mainstream politics if the result is not abided by without a lot of work to restore faith.)

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At a formal level you're asking about two different standards

Where elections are usually not a source of contention in the UK, the referendum certainly was. Because of a long string of lies and at times dispiriting fear mongering during the campaign (remember the bus that got disowned by Farage the day after Leave won?), and because of campaign finance law violations.

And just to be clear here: even in reasonably well functioning democracies, elections are contested and there's no shortage of campaign finance violations, corruption, and at times outright fraud, or voter suppression, or even legal challenges of the result (remember Gore?). Still, it works relatively well compared to, say, [your pick of a less mature democracy; ideally one with a semi- or full-blown autocrat at the helm].

If you instead compare the Brexit referendum with elections in less well run democracies, where blatant lies and campaign law violations are more commonplace, things become murkier. You'll find that, actually, observers do suggest an honest rerun every so often, when it's not the voters themselves who ask for one. (Whether it gets done is another story entirely of course, which makes it a non-story in western countries unless people get shot at for protesting the vote.)

At a more substantive level there are two sides of this coin

On the one hand side you've May and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum who are arguing that if voters are asked to vote for this again, especially without seeing it put into place before that, then they will lose even more faith in their politicians and their democratic institutions. And I agree with that argument up to a point. You can't put something back to the voters until they give the answer you want (which, fun fact, EU leaders technically did in a sense with the Lisbon treaty). But I'd also stress that in May's specific case, it's also and actually about keeping the Conservative Party intact. And even if we leave the bad faith and the political calculations aside, there's probably something to be said about gaining and retaining voters' trust to begin with.

On the other hand side, those who support a People's Vote argue that hey, those who voted Leave had no idea about what they were signing up for. They were lied to, and promised the moon, etc. They can now actually make up their mind and decide on whether it's a good idea with a concrete deal before them. They actually have an excellent point -- whichever other option(s) voters would want to see on the ballot (No Brexit, or No Deal, or both). And it makes a good deal of sense, when you consider that defending the concrete but imperfect things that you have can't really win a battle in the court of public opinion, against some hypothetical, as of yet defined, and very wishful place some would like to take you.


More to the point, and as I've noted in an earlier comment to your question, the real wtf here is: what's the big deal about repeating a referendum, when the ERG's second in command asked earlier today for an early repeat of May's confidence vote -- on the basis, wait for it, that had they known what it entailed, many would have not voted the same way?

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People claiming that a confirmatory referendum would be "undemocratic" don't understand how referendums work in the UK.

The referendum was advisory. It had no legal force. It could have been completely ignored, although of course there would have been consequences at the next election. More than that, it was extremely vague. It said "leave the EU", but didn't specify how or on what terms. There are numerous proposals ranging from a Norway style deal (proposed by Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP, and many others) to an immediate no-deal crash out with no deals in place.

As such, the question of how to leave is entirely separate, and the current options (May's deal or no-deal) are nothing like what was proposed. As such a second referendum to confirm if either of those options are acceptable, or if the UK should remain in the EU, is perfectly democratic.

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