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Just Hold Another Referendum

There's nothing democratic about forcing through a Brexit deal that voters in 2016 probably wouldn't have approved.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Rousseau did not believe that representative democracy was democratic. “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing,” the French theorist wrote in his 1762 treatise, Social Contract. According to Rousseau, the will of the people cannot be truly expressed when mediated by representatives—it has to be voiced directly. 

In 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union—but did not vote on the terms of the exit, nor on its relationship with the EU once it left. After much negotiation, the Conservative-led British government under Prime Minister Theresa May has finally reached a deal regarding these particulars—a deal few are enthusiastic about. Anti-Brexit groups, the Scottish National Party, the Labour Party, and even some Conservative members of Parliament have now raised the possibility of a second referendum: a “people’s vote” on the deal’s terms, with the UK staying in the EU if they are rejected—“a gross betrayal of our democracy,” according to the prime minister and others who consider the 2016 result final. The fundamental question is what “the will of the people” requires in this sort of situation.

In the aftermath of the 2016 vote, despite the fact that the referendum itself was not legally binding, there was a near universal understanding that the result had to be respected. Leaving the EU was against the better judgement of the majority of the people’s elected representatives, but the democratic power of a referendum result was seen as trumping their concerns. The UK’s political class, with some notable exceptions, seemed to have espoused Rousseau’s view that direct democracy is democratically superior to representative democracy.

Parliament did not entirely yield its constitutional sovereignty, however. In December of 2017 it forced May’s hesitant government to guarantee that the final deal reached between the government and the EU would require Parliament’s approval. A vote on this deal was due on Tuesday. On Monday, however, after only three of the five scheduled days of debate in Parliament, and in what the speaker of the house called a “deeply discourteous” political maneuver, the prime minister proceeded to postpone the vote. On Wednesday, a group of hard Brexiters in the Conservative Party seized the opportunity and gathered enough support to trigger a vote of no confidence in May’s party leadership that evening—a vote she survived, but not by a particularly comfortable margin: 200 of the party’s MPs voted for her, and 117 against.

The political barriers to getting Parliament’s approval still seem insoluble: In order to guarantee that no hard border will be introduced between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) even if the UK and the EU do not reach a trade agreement, May’s plan provides for a last resort wherein there would be special conditions for Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU—something that negates the whole point of Brexit, according to Brexit supporters, and displeases the Northern Irish Party propping up May’s minority government. May hopes she can renegotiate that part of the deal with the EU, but the EU has ruled out renegotiation. Even if the EU were to change its mind, it remains unlikely than a new deal would be different enough for Parliament to vote it through. 

Part of why Rousseau was skeptical of representative democracy was because he thought elected representatives could not possibly do justice to what the general will dictated. Indeed, MPs on both sides of the Brexit debate indicated they would vote down May’s deal because they saw it as misrepresenting the referendum result.

The democratic solution to this yawning gap between what the people voted for and what their politicians are capable of procuring for them, of course, would be a second referendum. May, however, is convinced that a second referendum would be undemocratic: that those calling for a second referendum are also those who voted no in the first one, and would prefer to stop Brexit altogether, disrespecting the people’s 2016 choice. 

Viewed abstractly, overturning an older vote with a new one is hardly undemocratic; it is in fact the essence of democracy, allowing a people to adapt to new circumstances. It would indeed be undemocratic for the 2016 referendum to be overturned by a less democratic process, such as a parliamentary vote. But in a competition between two identical democratic processes, capturing the general will at two different times, opposing a new referendum could only be justified by placing greater value on the votes cast in 2016 than those which would be cast today. That hardly seems democratic. It also seems contrary to the spirit of the UK’s constitutional principle according to which no past Parliament’s decision can bind its successors.

Others opposing a second referendum say that regardless of the second vote’s merits, it would be perceived as undemocratic by voters, resulting in a loss of faith in the political system, endangering its democracy. The relevant question, though, is what effect the absence of a second referendum would have on people’s perception of democracy. Given that the chances of new modifications on the deal seem slim, the alternatives for Parliament would be to either approve a no-deal Brexit, or to unilaterally stop the entire Brexit process, something that on Monday the European Court of Justice ruled is an option for the UK. Either of those two results are in greater danger of being perceived as undemocratic than any second referendum result would, and justifiably so.

A no-deal Brexit would be an outcome far removed from what the vast majority of people who voted back in 2016 wanted. Practically, no “Leave” campaigner ever suggested anything other than a financially and otherwise advantageous Brexit. Yet the Bank of England has warned of a historic economic downturn, worse than the 2008 financial crisis, in the case of no-deal. A no-deal Brexit would also completely ignore the will of the 48 percent who voted to stay in the EU, in contrast to even May’s deal which aims for a close relationship with the EU in years to come.

The danger that crashing out of the EU presents to the country’s financial well-being could concentrate minds and push Parliament, even without the prime minister’s support, to stop the withdrawal process altogether. That would mean staying in the EU without having consulted the electorate, thus flatly ignoring the 2016 referendum result—a serious threat to popular faith in the system given that many of the same MPs had recognized the referendum as democratically binding back in 2017, when they voted to trigger the withdrawal process.  

Rousseau didn’t believe that true democracy was possible: “Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men,” who would need to act consistently for the greater good, rather than their personal interests, and to possess the necessary amount of time (and wisdom) for engaging properly in public affairs.

Asking citizens to vote directly on a 585-page, technically complicated and legally baffling document is far from a perfect way to govern. But the UK’s political representatives have also proven themselves to be far from perfect. What brought them to the current gridlock in the first place might be the only way out: If the government really believes that the first referendum was the purest expression of democracy and the will of people, there is no reason not to hold another one.