The referendum gave sovereignty to the British people, so now they deserve a final say on the Brexit deal
Morally, emotionally even, another referendum is needed to help bind up the wounds of the past two years
The Independent today launches a campaign to win for the British people the right to a final say on Brexit. Come what may in the months ahead, we maintain our commitment to our readers to retain balance and present many different points of view. But on this subject we believe a referendum on the final deal is right. We do so for three reasons.
First, amid the chaos of recent months, one thing has become increasingly clear: Theresa May’s approach – and indeed the chaos in parliament – is not working. We are simply not close enough to resolving so many big issues about which people care so much. The enormity of the task, the contradictions in both major parties and the ferocious divisions in their ranks have now stretched our parliament to its limits, to the point where the impasse leads us ever closer to an “accidental” Brexit, as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt most recently acknowledged, without a deal.
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Second, sovereignty rests with the people – the people should have the opportunity to finish what they began, to pause and consider whether they still want to go ahead with the Brexit course we’re on, just as they would any other major decision in their lives.
Third, while there are questions about the validity of another referendum – shouldn’t the original outcome be delivered? – we clearly know more now than we did in 2016, amid such deeply flawed campaigns on both sides. Ignoring these shortcomings and ploughing on regardless is a far bigger problem for democracy. Faced with the current turmoil in our politics, and with dangers ahead coming into focus, it is surely undemocratic to deny people a chance to express their opinion afresh.
There is just a chance too that a new referendum would provide a form of healing for a divided nation, the indisputable closure we all crave. Clarity may emerge. At the very least, it could reassure the “losing” side – whichever that may be – that the country had a chance to have its say on the final deal that is offered, rather than on the original, opaque principle alone of exit from the EU.
We do not have to look for long to find examples of the failures of the current process. Parliament is deadlocked. Such is the challenge in getting anything through that last week Ms May only managed to overcome the latest attempted rebellion by drawing on the sort of skulduggery, in the infamous “vote pairing” scandal, that left her own MPs feeling ashamed.
After the long summer recess that is now upon us, there will be more knife-edge divisions in the Commons and more amendments to legislation. Some will no doubt indulge in the same sort of politicking – the votes will be tight, accidents will happen, chief whips may make “honest mistakes” about arrangements for members of parliament on maternity leave. There will be more ministerial resignations, more Conservative leadership crises, more threats, more confusion, more fudge, more uncertainty.
It seems wrong.
Parliament has been offered a “meaningful vote” on the final deal, a concession exacted by the skilful work of former attorney general Dominic Grieve. However, recent events suggest the government lacks a true and honourable commitment to parliamentary process.
Besides, the “meaningful vote” may not end in a meaningful outcome, because parliament looks unable to be decisive – turning this way and that, depending on the shifting ballast of dissent in the Conservative Party, the scheming of the whips, and sheer happenchance.
For their part, the hard Brexiteers make little secret that they wish to keep their “eyes on the prize” – the fact of Brexit. They are undismayed by “crashing out” of the EU without a deal if none has been reached by 29 March – indeed, some would welcome this hardest of all Brexits. Thus they have every incentive to confuse, prevaricate and delay. Chaos suits them just fine. They would allow the people of the UK to endure the cost – vast economic disruption, a possible return to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and, some claim, a state of emergency – as long as it allows them to achieve their own goal.
The British people decided to pursue our course in the referendum of 2016, so as we now look for a decision on whether we will like the deal agreed with the EU (assuming there is one), it is natural that those same people should have the final say.
Indeed, given the magnitude of the decision, it would be essential for the British people to be given that final right of approval, even if cabinet and parliament were providing the leadership we need, which they are not.
Morally, emotionally even, a referendum is also needed to help bind up the wounds of the past two years. The 2016 referendum was deeply flawed. Both the campaigns for Leave (Vote Leave and Leave.eu) have been censured by the Electoral Commission, with individuals referred to the police. It could be argued, on the other hand, that the greatest democratic outrage associated with the 2016 referendum was the decision by David Cameron to send an official leaflet to every household recommending a Remain vote, paid for by the taxpayer at a cost of around £9m.
A general election, some argue, especially in Labour circles, would be another way of dealing with the impasse. Yet general elections are fought on many issues, and the European issue so obviously runs across party lines that we might end up with an “accidental” government under first past the post – if, say, Ukip takes votes away from Conservatives to let Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrats in, or if Ukip polls so well in Labour areas it pushes Jeremy Corbyn back.
So how should the referendum work? What should the question on the ballot paper ask? What voting system should be used? These are all important issues, and we will be returning to them in the weeks ahead. Of course, the question put to the public in a meaningful referendum would depend on whether an EU-UK deal is even reached at that point. If there is no deal on offer, the ballot paper would be simple: a choice between leaving the EU with no deal, or staying in the EU. If there is a proposed deal, there would need to be three options on the ballot, expressed in some variety of preferential voting system: accept the deal and leave the EU, leave the EU without a deal, or remain in the EU. The question of the voting system must wait for another day. One important lesson might be to explicitly make the referendum binding; that would add a formal air of finality to the episode.
The final deal referendum would be relatively easy to organise, compared with other difficulties ahead. Should an extension to the Article 50 period be needed to facilitate it, so be it – what is a few months compared with the forever that follows them?
The author Robert Harris put the case for a final deal referendum differently in a recent tweet: “Strongly suspect there will be 2nd referendum, not for any noble reason, but because MPs will desperately want to hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents – the electorate – & let them decide what to do with it”.
Like changing a baby, the process of a final deal referendum will be messy, but necessary. And much, much better than the alternative.
Our politicians have hardly covered themselves in glory since the 2016 referendum. It’s time to let the people take back control.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here