It’s the 16th of May 2016. Nigel Farage, then still UKIP leader and everyone’s favourite pub dwelling man of the people, is giving an interview to The Daily Mirror. The subject, of course, is the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a vote Farage has spent his entire political career trying to make happen. More specifically, however, the discussion centres around the possibility of a second referendum should remain win by a narrow margin. In his own words;
“In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.”
It is now referendum day, the 23rd of June. The polls have just closed and our good friend Nigel finds himself on the radio, slightly upset. He explains that, according to some late polling that was done by his friends in the city, he is now more or less convinced that remain will win by that aforementioned narrow margin, however, we all know how this particular story ends. As the night goes on it becomes clear that the Leave campaign has surpassed even its own leader’s expectations, and won.
Remember that quote? Well, it’s certainly one which Farage now wishes had never left his lips. After all, what he had clearly stated was that a 52-48 victory for “remain” would justify a second referendum. Problem is, it was instead “leave” that won by 52-48, and now, according to pretty much every Brexit supporter, even mentioning the possibility of a second referendum is an insult to democracy. Funny that.
Professor Richard Dawkins is a man better known for his advocacy of science and atheism as opposed to political commentary, but in a recent article for The New Statesman, he makes an interesting point.
“it is a well established principle of democracy that, in the case of major constitutional changes that are hard to undo, the bar should be set higher than 50%. Amendments to the US constitution require a two thirds majority in both houses of Congress, ratified by three quarters of state legislatures. Well-run democracies generally impose a built-in bias in favour of the status quo based on the precautionary principle. Like the weather and like financial markets, public opinion fluctuates from day to day.”
Now the idea that successful referendums should need more than a slim majority isn’t even one to which the UK is alien. In 1979, a vote was held to decide on whether to implement the “Scotland Act 1978”, which called for the setting up of a devolved Scottish Assembly. “Yes” won by 52-48 (yes, seriously), however, the proposal was still defeated. You see, for the vote to succeed, “Yes” needed to not only win a majority but also do so with at least 40% of the total electorate (they got 32.9%). As one might expect, this continued to be a pressing issue over the next two decades, so much so that a second referendum was promised by the Labour Party in its manifesto for the 1997 general election. Since Labour went on to win that election, the promised second referendum on devolution was held the same year. This time “Yes” won by a landslide and everyone was satisfied.
The fact that public opinion is known to constantly fluctuate is certainly a good reason for setting the bar slightly higher than a slim majority, however, what’s done is done, and unlike the four million people which went on to sign this petition, I certainly don’t agree with changing the rules of a vote after the actual vote. That’s awfully silly and immature, however, that being said, I do think that there is a case to be made for a second EU referendum, and it mainly comes down to the fact that most people had little idea as to what they were actually voting for.
It has long become clear that those who lead the “Leave” campaign never had a plan for leaving the European Union, indeed probably because few of them actually expected to win. That’s irresponsible enough, however as has also become blatantly obvious recently, from the NHS to the economy to immigration, the many arguments used by “Leave” began to fall apart as soon as the morning after.
For many people, voting to leave the European Union was more of a protest against the political establishment as opposed to a decision aimed at a specific organisation. People who have felt utterly betrayed and left behind by the spread of globalisation, people who felt their issues were simply not being heard, and people whom the likes of Nigel Farage automatically sought to exploit. Soon enough, whenever there was a crisis on these islands, somehow, the European Union was at fault.
When the British steel industry found itself on the brink of collapse due to the flood of Chinese steel entering the European market, Farage went on BBC Question Time and claimed that leaving the EU would immediately make it all better. Never mind of course the fact that UKIP members of the European Parliament refused to vote on legislation which would put tariffs on the aforementioned Chinese steel, hence helping to avert the issue in the first place.
But never you mind that, because soon enough, leaving the European Union was presented as a magical solution to pretty much anything. Can’t get a job? Just vote leave and make it better. Can’t afford a decent place to live? Don’t worry son for Brexit has you covered. Is your local NHS overflooded with foreigners (most of whom are likely to be the ones treating you)? Then vote leave and take back control of our borders.
The fact is, many people genuinely believed the Leave Campaign’s brazen lie about handing the NHS an extra 350 million pounds a week. Many people were genuinely convinced by the multitude of half-truths and untruths peddled by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson every day of every week. Believe it or not, but the people of this country have a million issues on their plate, and here were Nigel, Mike and BoJo, parading around and selling their Brexit snake oil.
As you’re probably well aware, there will soon begin a long and drawn out negotiation on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU. Terms which will determine the kind of relationship we will have with Europe and the world in the coming decades. And maybe the British people deserve a say on the outcome of this deal. Imagine for a second what would happen if it was “remain” that won by a few percent. Hardcore Brexit supporters would be out and about demanding another vote, with Nigel Farage undoubtedly at the forefront. But now, in an act of sheer albeit unsurprising hypocrisy, a second referendum is not something Farage happens to desire. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because he’s aware of the scale of buyers remorse being felt everywhere from Cornwall to Newcastle. He sold the people on a fantasy, and many of them would surely vote a different way once they come to see our magical post-Brexit reality.