Since the EU Referendum at the end of 23 June and the shock result, there have been calls for a second referendum. An online petition has well over four million signatories. The Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith has promised a second referendum. There are plenty of precedents for this, including Ireland which first voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and then accepted it in a second referendum a year later. In the immediate aftermath of the result, there were the regrexiters who were reputedly shocked to discover that the Brexit side had won and wanted to change their vote - so a second referendum would be good, right?
No. I really think this is a bad idea. I have four reasons for this and I'm going to set them out in ascending order of importance and significance.
- I don't think we'd win.
For all the talk of people regretting their vote - I doubt it's a real thing. Some will, sure, but the powerful psychological mechanism of cognitive dissonance means that people do not want to think they've done something stupid. A small upturn in the economy, some bad but plausible arguments, or plain bullishness, will probably make people want to approve the choice they made. And by calling the second referendum the Remainers will hand them an argument: it will look like a crude attempt to gerrymander a vote and that message will be rammed down everyone's throats right through the campaign.
This is the least powerful argument, I think, because in general I don't think it's a great argument to say that we shouldn't hold a vote because we won't win.
- You want to go through all that again?
The atmosphere in the campaign was appalling. The outrageous lies of the Brexiteers, the dog-whistling race-hatred of Farage and others, the racial abuse unleashed since, the artificial chest-beating nationalism of the tabloids, the murder of Jo Cox. I don't remember feeling so miserable about British culture and politics and society. Do we really want to go through all that again? And this time in an even more poisonous atmosphere where the people who claim they 'won' see the second referendum as a coup?
- It's profoundly undemocratic
One fact about this referendum is that it isn't binding. This is a fact. Parliament could have chosen to make it binding in the legislation (like they did with the AV Referendum) but they specifically chose it not to be binding. The Brexiteers who now pop up and say that Remain 'lost' don't know what they're talking about. A non-binding referendum is not 'lost' any more than an opinion poll is 'lost'. To treat the referendum as if it were binding is to rewrite history.
And that's what we'd be doing if we called for a second referendum. No one ever said there'd be a second referendum in the run-up to the vote (well, Boris Johnson did, but he's an idiot) and it seems crazy to suddenly announce that the first referendum was, what?, provisional, dipping a toe in the water of public opinion and that the next one will be the real thing.
- It's not necessary
As everybody now knows - because we've all become constitutional experts - nothing happens until Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered. And no one has triggered it yet. This morning, the Government made clear that the article will not be triggered this year. And until it's triggered, we haven't left the EU. The new PM, Theresa May, has rather cleverly declared 'Brexit is Brexit', one of those phrases that is like Doctor Who's magic paper: it means what you want it to mean. She's also suggested that there will need to be a 'UK-wide' decision to trigger Article 50, which, on the face of it, looks like Scotland have a kind of veto - and Scotland strongly voted to Remain.
And then there's a strange Catch 22. The EU are saying they won't begin trade talks until Article 50 is triggered. And we can't start trade talks with anyone else until we've actually left. There may be some wiggle room here - it's hard to imagine the EU bothering to censure us for beginning trade talks outside the EU while the Article 50 process is underway (although some member countries might demand that we are stopped). But the US are currently saying they won't start trade talks until we've left (which would have to be 2019 at the earliest). We surely won't want to trigger Article 50 without a good idea what our post-Brexit trade deal would be - but we can't know what our post-Brexit trade deal would be like until we trigger Article 50.
Now to be sure, at some point we will have to decide whether we are leaving the EU or not. But equally, at some point, the referendum's writ runs out. By that I mean: if the government triggered Article 50 now, I think most people - angry though we'd be - would say they could do so on the mandate from the referendum. But equally obviously in, say, 40 years time, if for some reason we hadn't left the EU, it would be absurd to think that a new Government in 2056 could use a vote in 2016 as a mandate. So, at some fuzzy point between now and then, the mandate expires. I think that could be quite soon, if the economic consequences become clear and/or the mood of the country changes and - particularly - if a new government is elected on a manifesto to remain.
Now, you might say, your third argument was about democracy; wouldn't it be terrible to let things slide until a democratic vote ran out of legitimacy? Not really. Because - and the Brexiteers really hate it when you mention this - they won less than 52% of the vote. Cameron's bizarre claim that the referendum had revealed the 'will of the British people' to leave is nonsense. It revealed that the British people are very evenly split on the matter. It's no clear mandate for such an extraordinary action. (And, let's remember, it was not a binding referendum: I can't stress this enough.) What would be undemocratic would be to act on the views of the 52% and ignore those of the 48%.
But, you might rightly come back, not to leave the EU would be to allow the views of the 48% to trump those of the 52%. Indeed so, which is why I think it is appropriate to wait and see what the true picture is. That campaign was so unsettled, so fractious, so filled with extraordinary and outrageous lies, so punctuated by violence and bigotry, that the best compliment we can pay our democracy is to see how things settle.
It may become clear that the EU finds it can accommodate some new associations between member countries. It may be that the EU collapses in a wave of euroscepticism. It may become clear that we will decimate our economy or worse by leaving. It may become evident that we can thrive very happily outside the EU. None of these things are clear yet. It may be that some sort of interim deal is drawn up that keeps us in while we negotiate, allowing us to draw up a deal without triggering Article 50 as Ian Dunt suggests in this quite brilliant piece. After that there might be a referendum or an election to decide whether we trigger the Article.
However, if we have a second referendum now, we just cement the Brexiteers' case and we'll be on a one-way street to exit.