A second Brexit referendum: great if it pays off, disastrous if it doesn’t

The following is a guest post by Ed Draper

“We need to have the people to break the log jam.” The words of Emily Thornberry to Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 news tonight, hours after the news broke that the Labour Party would support a second referendum, in the event of Theresa Mayrejecting Labour’s Brexit plan.

A move that has been vaguely on the cards since September, when the party announced that should Mrs May’s deal not meet Labour’s six requirements and a general election be rejected, then they would move tosupport another referendum as a means to prevent no deal. From a remain supporter’s perspective this is yet another glimmer of hope that the nightmarish event ofBrexit be avoided entirely (or at least that crashing out on 29th March be removed from the table).

But then you need to pinch yourself and remember that this is all speculation. IF a second referendum is scheduled, and that’s a big if, then all sorts of potential scenarios are thrown into the mix once more. Politicians will befaced with an immense array of decisions to make prior to this re-run of the 2016 vote. When do you set the referendum date for? Will Article 50 have to be extended (at this stage that’s a near certainty, which will require both the approval of parliament and the European Council)? How long should the respective campaigns be? Do you allow 16-year olds to vote, like in the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014? What about UK nationals abroad and EU nationals here? Both will be severely impacted by a no deal Brexit, is that democratic if they aren’t allowed a say? What about the regulation of the referendum: should spending be monitored and scrutinised more than last time?  Crucially the biggest questions will be: wha twill the choice be and by what margin do you determine a victory?

Those are just questions that are currently bouncing around in the head of one member of the electorate. Can you imagine the issues in theheads of those who would have to organise such a divisive event? As well as that think of the logistics of it? Would police numbers need to be doubled, or tripled, so as to ensure that extremists don’t interrupt the democratic process? Like Tommy Robinson and his far-right thugs, currently building aninfamous reputation for harassing a variety of apparent ‘enemies’, from politicians and journalists, to charities assisting victims of rape.

Let us say all goes to plan: a referendum is called, the decisions are clear, campaigning (though intense) is reasonably civil, and Tommy and his mates are kept at bay. The results come in and…oh dear, it’s 48/52 again. Whether it’s in favour of remaining, leaving, deal or no-deal, theresult is similar. What happens then? Deadlock again, the country doesn’t move on but continues to tread-water. Maybe Theresa May stays, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe a general election is called, maybe it isn’t.

The reality is a second referendum isn’t a simple answer to a complicated problem. Just as the whole choice way back in 2016 should never have been a simple, binary, in or out proposition. A YouGov survey published in January of this year put those in favour of Remain at 56%, while Leave made up the rest. Factoring in those who didn’t vote and the result was 48% Remain and 38% for leave. Those margins may be enough to make a difference. But the irony is that all it could take is a simple event, a simple buzzword, a simple tweet, a simple headline in the Daily Express, and the unlikely could happen again: ‘the people’ vote to leave again.

This isn’t meant to demean the idea of a second referendum. Nor is it meant to attack those who back it, or cast a pessimistic shadow overthose who think a mutually agreeable resolution to the current deadlock is still possible. It is a reminder to not automatically think that the people can resolve this situation. Don’t expect too much of the people; so often that is what referendums do. There was one guy who took that risk several years ago; he thought the people could resolve an issue that had been festering within his own party for years, decades even. He thought a simple in or out question would finally throw out the problem once and for all. Where is he now? To quote Danny Dyer, “he’s over in Nice with his trotters up.”

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