To avoid any presumption, I’ll start by announcing that I voted to remain in the European Union. Like many others, particularly my younger peers, I was disappointed by the result of the 2016 referendum. However, just because I would prefer to remain, does not mean that I believe a second referendum is a viable option for the U.K.
Firstly, what does one mean when they define democracy, and to what extent was the 2016 referendum in coordination with it. Democracy doesn’t always allow for a simple definition, but in laconic terms it achieves a change in society without violence (Dahrendorf, 2003). Of course this doesn’t take into account its rather complex implications, but essentially, it gives people a voice in the ‘exercise of power’ (Dahrendorf, 2003). This voice leads to the creation of institutions, which in turn control the government, making it possible to change it without any violence. Crucially, democracy protects us from tyranny.
It is not so easy to say whether the referendum was democratic or not, because the British political system is not based on the idea of having referendums. We elect MP’s who are meant to represent our political views in parliament. Having a referendum makes such a monumental decision very black and white, as they inherently don’t give you other options. French head of state Emmanuel Macron pronounced that the U.K. government may have erred in the execution of the referendum. Such a controversial national problem/decision cannot be concluded with a simple yes or no answer. But isn’t this exactly how we voted to join the European community in the first place?
The referendum certainly encouraged more citizens to engage in political dialogue. A positive of referendums is that make the population feel consulted and included. But in a more negative reality, they can heighten social tensions. A second referendum does not change the reality that such a problematic and monumental decision cannot be settled with a yes or no answer. But also a second referendum would only further heighten social tensions. The second referendum would, for the most part, be appeasing those who want to remain. What about the people that want to leave?
An opinion I have heard a lot recently is that the majority was too slim to justify the result that we would leave the EU. But this wasn’t a typical election, it was a leave or remain vote. Just two choices. In a typical General Election, you don’t just have to choose between what may currently be perceived as the two main parties: Labour and Conservative. You could vote for the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, Democratic Unionist Party, and so the list continues. Therefore, the referendum can’t be calculated in the way that a typical election is, it’s not about seats or party majorities. The result was to leave, even if it only won by a little, you can’t compromise on it. How is a second referendum indicative of progress or even the notion of democracy? I wasn’t particularly pleased with the outcome in the recent general election, whereby the Conservatives could align with the Democratic Unionist Party to form a coalition. They didn’t hold a big enough majority, but they had other options, and they took them. Referendums undermine majority rights. There wasn’t another option with the Brexit vote and people knew that. Remain voters had no one to align with to allow Britain to remain in the EU. Therefore, as the result of the vote was to leave, that should be resolute.
Moreover, one of the reasons I’ve heard, advocating for a second referendum, is that people didn’t know what the outcome of Brexit would be. But with a second referendum, do we know what would happen in the future if we remain? It would be in the hands of the European federalist government. The unfortunate reality is that some people believe they voted on false pretenses, or from what was plastered on buses. Of course everyone’s reasons cannot be predicted, but we all have the access to further our research or understanding. With the high number of people that voted, a lot of people would have been well informed, responsible people from all walks of life. Therefore, a second referendum based on this has no credence. No one knew what was going to happen. The smartest man in the world could not have predicted what would happen when we leave Europe. What we voted on could basically be described like this: on the one hand, you have the European Union, something we have been a part of since 1973 (technically we joined the European Economic Community) which despite having its flaws, gave us the opportunity to sit at the European table and benefit from European trade, something both sides wish to retain. Or, we vote to leave, and what will happen is inside this little black box that we can’t open yet. We don’t know what’s inside. It could be good; it could be bad. People talk about being misled by partial truths, and how they were not properly informed before the referendum, or now. The truth is easy, but the whole truth is another matter. Yes, politicians exaggerated. But of course they were going to do that. Any election sees exaggeration from politicians, they are trying to get people to vote for their cause.
How is a second referendum promoting democracy? The West praises its democratic system and often attempts to enforce it on other nations. But in this case, all we are really showing is that firstly, we can’t stick to the decisions we make. And then we are promoting the idea that actually a vote isn’t final. We were given a vote. Just because we don’t all agree with the outcome, does not mean that just 2 months before we’re due to leave the EU, that another referendum is what we need. Personally I think politicians are failing us. They are meant to be the spearheads of this decision, yet they can’t agree. And in their disagreement they’re losing not only the public’s trust, but our confidence in them. Politics is based on compromise, and this is something that the public needs to see, and the politicians should lead by example. What we need now is not a second referendum, but a clear decision on the way forward.
Dahrendorf, R. (2003). A Definition of Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 1.