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A second vote

10 March 2017

IF ONE referendum is democratic, two ought to be twice as democratic. When the second is called to counter the first, however, the democratic dividend is halved, and the whole process is brought into disrepute. Not that the EU referendum which grew out of political divisions within the Conservative Party, was very reputable in the first place. None the less, those who argued on Tuesday in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury among them, that a second referendum on membership should be resisted did so largely to prevent any further undermining of the political process, damaged as it was by campaigning that employed fake news before it was ever labelled as such. The Archbishop might have been exaggerating when he said that “this feels like the most divided country that I have lived in in my lifetime” — though admittedly he was out of the country for the first half of the Thatcher decade. But it is clear that the referendum campaign not only revealed divisions in British society but also exacerbated them. It painted a false picture of the effect of immigration, it confused calculated projections about the UK’s future economy with unfounded assertions, and it played on people’s fears and insecurities. It is naïve to believe that, once the exit deal has been brokered, voters would sit down calmly and weigh up the pros and cons.

The result of another referendum in the present climate is likely to mirror the first, given the cascade of positive headlines about how well the UK economy has been doing since the vote. Certainly nothing indicates that there has been a convincing swing in favour of remaining in the European Union; nor are EU officials doing much to make such a prospect seem attractive. A scraped majority the other way would convince no one; and imposing a requirement for a two-thirds majority, as should have happened last June, would create a dilemma: if a large majority is needed to effect radical constitutional change, it could be argued that any vote after Article 50 is triggered should require a two-thirds majority in favour of EU member­ship.

That said, it is hard to resist an urge for a second referendum every time a government figure speaks of “the will of the people”, as happens almost daily. Manipulated by Leave cam­paigners who implied that all the UK’s ills could be solved by uncoupling from the Continent, and unmoved by lacklustre Remain campaigning, the will of the people was more or less equally divided. Ministers and MPs, some of whom won their seats by just a handful of votes, seem to see nothing remarkable in this. But, if it is right to honour those who voted against EU membership by sticking with Brexit, it follows that the narrow minority who voted to remain ought also to be honoured. This argues that the exit deal negotiated with the EU should reflect their views — especially when they make economic sense.

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