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Paul Vallely: To ask again is not anti-democratic

21 December 2018

Arguments against a second referendum do not convince Paul Vallely


I HAVE been perplexed for some time by the contention that a second referendum, now that we can see more clearly what Brexit implies, will somehow destroy democracy. It is a trope that has been frequently repeated over the past few weeks by hardline Brexiteers — but it now seems to have entered the political mainstream.

The Prime Minister warned this week that a second referendum would cause “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”. The right-wing commentator Charles Moore has called on Leavers to boycott any second vote.

The presupposition in all this is that a second referendum is nothing more than a plot by die-hard Remainers to unilaterally overturn the original decision. Were that the case, the hard-line Brexiteers might have a point. But a second vote leaves it open to voters to deliver the same verdict as they did in 2016. It is hard to see how that is anti-democratic.

Changed circumstances may alter the original judgement. “When the facts change, I change my mind — what do you do, sir?”, as Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said. Have the facts changed? Some have. The lie about £350 million extra every week for the NHS has been exposed. Leavers may riposte that there were also unsubstantiated “Project Fear” claims by Remainers, too. But what is indisputable is that a whole raft of new issues has emerged that might materially affect voters’ views.

Few voters, on either side, originally under­stood how wide-ranging the implications of Brexit would be on the stockpiling of drugs, the import of water-purification chemicals, air-traffic control, the import of GM crops and chlorine-washed chicken, satnavs, house prices, student-exchange programmes, intelligence-sharing, scientific research, the value of the pound, telephone roaming charges — the new disclosures, week by week, have gone on and on.

Then there are the very specific details of the withdrawal agreement that Mrs May has negotiated — and that the majority of MPs, of all parties and all Brexit dispensations, want to reject.

The response to all this by the hardliners has been to issue dire warnings about civil unrest if “the will of the people” is thwarted. Look at what is happening with the yellow-vest protesters in France, they hint darkly.

Leaving aside the uneasy feeling that politicians who talk about blood on the streets may effectively be inciting it, the argument is alarmist. Rioting is not much part of the British character. Apart from local street disturbances, you have to go back to the poll tax to find anything on a national scale comparable to what is going on in France, where direct action is part of the national DNA.

It is entirely possible, of course, that the alienated swath of the electorate who voted Leave — and who still feel left behind by globalisation and the comfortable platitudes of the metro­politan and cosmopolitan elite — might vote Out again. But it’s hard to say how giving them the chance to do that will undermine our faith in politics. Democracy did not end in June 2016.

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