In Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought comes up with the answer to the question of 'Life, the Universe, and Everything', which is 42. It then says the that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was.

In the Brexit referendum a few years ago, the British public answered 'leave Europe'.

It appears to me that politicians are arguing today because they disagree about what the question really meant, what it actually allows or mandates them to do. However, none seem to be addressing this issue directly, content to continue to insist that they know what the people meant, rather than addressing the issue of the inadequate question directly.

Even the supporters of a second referendum seem to be advocating it on the basis that either we 'didn't get the right answer the first time round', or 'now that the electorate see the difficulties in leaving we might get a different answer', rather than 'the first question was inadequate, let's ask a better question (or set of questions)'.


1 Answer 1


What was the question that the Referendum answered?

The question was: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?". It wasn't about "leaving Europe" (as you wrote), it was about leaving the European Union.

There is a document, published by the government before the referendum to meet requirements in the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which tries to make it more precise what leaving European Union could mean: Alternatives to membership: possible models for the United Kingdom outside the European Union. The key part is Chapter 3: The Alternatives. It lists three major alternatives: The Norway model (i.e. remaining in the Single Market), a negotiated bilateral agreement, WTO membership (i.e. no-deal Brexit).

Here is a part about negotiating a deal with the EU:

4.10 It would not be quick or straightforward to establish a new relationship. The models described in this paper are the result of complex negotiations, conducted over many years. International trade negotiations are notoriously slow and complicated. The more comprehensive the agreement, the more drawn-out negotiations tend to be. Negotiating exit from the EU, a new relationship for the UK with the EU, and then a new set of trade deals with third countries, would be at the most complicated end of the spectrum. We should expect this process to take up to a decade or more to complete.

And here is a part about a no-deal Brexit:

It would take up to a decade or more to negotiate a new agreement with the EU and to replace our existing trade deals with other countries. [...] if we could not reach agreement with the EU on a new arrangement, our trading arrangements would revert to WTO rules. This would provide the most complete break with the EU.

From the above, we can assume that by voting "leave" people voted on any of the three above models (the Norway model, bilateral agreement, no-deal Brexit). No-deal Brexit was seen as the last resort, when "a decade or more" of negotiations didn't succeed. So Brexiteers definitely shouldn't be so impatient about the Brexit process after just three years.

Should we have another referendum to ask a question that asks the public explicitly about their preference for customs union, or free trade agreement, or WTO terms, and what their appetite is for disrupted trade? Is it possible to frame such a question, what would such a question look like?

To be consistent with the outcome of the first referendum, the second one could not have "remain" as an option on the ballot, just different deals that the EU can potentially accept, from very soft to very hard, as well as no-deal Brexit as an option. For every deal (or no deal), the voters would have the possibility to mark it as acceptable or not acceptable. This is the way voting was done in the parliament, and I don't see any reason to do it differently in a referendum.

Brexiteers wouldn’t be able to complain that it’s a re-run of the 2016 referendum. It wouldn’t be a referendum asking IF they want Brexit, it would be a referendum about WHAT Brexit they want. I can't see any reasonable argument anyone could have against it.

There are two possible outcomes of such a referendum:

  1. (not likely) There is an option that has got more votes “for” than “against”. It means that we finally have a specific Brexit plan supported by a majority of voters. The Brexit problem has been solved.

  2. (quite likely) No option gets more votes “for” than “against”. Article 50 notification gets cancelled, BUT the public is assured that Brexit is still a possibility. Anyone can propose a new Brexit plan, and if he/she collects enough signatures, a new referendum will be organised. If the referendum succeeds, Article 50 will be invoked again. These assurances can be made into law.

This solution would make Remainers relatively happy: in practice, it would mean Remain for the foreseeable future, as there has been no majority for any specific type of Brexit so far. However, if it turned out that there was a specific deal with a majority support, I think most Remainers would accept the outcome: after three years of the Brexit drama and countless discussions, you cannot really argue that the people didn't know what they wanted for.

It should also satisfy constructive Brexiteers: they would always have a real possibility to have a referendum on a constructive Brexit proposal. Of course, it won't satisfy unconstructive Brexiteers, who don't know what they actually want, but it’s hard to satisfy them anyway.

  • 4
    The first half of this answer is OK; but the second half (as hinted in a comment to the question above) is very opinion-based. I'd also warn against statements like "I don't see any reason..." and " I can't see any reasonable argument...", as even if you can't see any reason or argument, there always seem to be others who can! Sep 8, 2019 at 12:11
  • 1
    @SteveMelnikoff I'm answering to the best of my knowledge, if you see a reason or an argument, please state it here, I will update my answer accordingly.
    – michau
    Sep 8, 2019 at 12:17
  • I don't think the EU is going to accept option #2 at this point in time. "We'll stay for now, but we reserve the right to declare Brexit all over again at any time" is not going to go over well after the ridiculous mess this whole farce has already been. Sep 9, 2019 at 6:08
  • @Shadur Any EU member country can invoke Article 50 whenever it wishes. So if the UK decides to remain in the EU, it will still have this possibility.
    – michau
    Sep 9, 2019 at 22:54

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