I speculated the other day as to why Nigel Farage now wants a further referendum on the UK’s EU Membership. I don’t really mind why he’s had this change of heart, but welcome to the club, Nige.
Let’s have the second referendum.
Let me explain this a little more.
I do not like referendums (I prefer representative democracy), but I cannot see how the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum can be reversed without a further referendum. I argued as such back in the summer of 2016 and I stand by that. British representative democracy is not in a healthy state, the UK’s FPTP election system does not mean that Parliament remotely reflects the balance of views in the country, and the balance between representative and direct democracy has not even been touched so far. The UK needs proper political and constitutional reform – but let’s do one thing at a time, and reversing Brexit is the imperative one. So a referendum.
But a referendum on what exactly?
Staying in the EU – on the terms that are available at the time the referendum happens – must be one option. Leaving with whatever terms of a deal are known must be a further option. And perhaps a no deal option too. Q1 – do you want the UK to leave? Q2 – with this deal, or no deal?
Which then leads us to: when could this referendum happen?
Before you can answer that you need to ask a further question: does this referendum need to happen before the UK has legally left the EU? The answer to that is a decisive yes as far as I am concerned – having left, voting to then re-join is a very different thing – not least because the terms of membership would be different.
All of this gets bound up in the issue of exit dates and transition periods, an issue that I examine in this blog post. At the time of writing, both the UK and the EU are working to the assumption that the UK leaves the EU on 30 March 2019, and then the UK has a transition period where it essentially does everything that EU membership entails, except having any role or say in the institutions. This option – as I argue in the linked post – is administratively and legally complicated, and I am pretty confident that within a few months everyone will be arguing to extend the Article 50 deadline, or trying to post date the exit agreement.
For the sake of a further referendum this is vital – trying to get a referendum organised on the final deal between now and March 2019 is next to impossible as David Allen Green rightly argues here. But push the actual date of exit back to the end of 2020 and suddenly the UK can buy itself more time – to negotiate further with the EU, and also to organise itself a further referendum before exit.
So the referendum would happen in 2020 I reckon.
A referendum then could work pretty well – if the Tories are still in power then, in the penultimate year of a 5-year parliament, they’ll be fantastically unpopular, and having messed around with Brexit for so long ought to be ready to be given a bloody nose by the electorate. The Tories would have to be on the side of Leave, except some of the nicer rebels.
And then how do you do it, and make sure that the Remain side wins?
Polls are looking a little better for Remain at the moment, but victory would be far from assured. So all of this is a risk, but it is a risk those who favour Remain are going to have to take. As the shape of Brexit becomes clear, that the UK made an error should also become clear. The strategy of the EU in this regard has been pretty exemplary up until now – the ball has been in the UK’s court to propose how to go about exiting, and in the absence of UK plans to be able to do it the EU does not look like the stubborn or difficult one. The UK is being hoisted by its own petard.
A crucial error was made prior to the last referendum about the right to vote – it was the same as for UK General Elections, namely no right to vote for 16-18 year olds, no right to vote for EU citizens in the UK, and no right to vote for Brits who have lived overseas for more than 15 years. All of these groups are the very people who will be most impacted by Brexit. So make the argument to change it. The argument for 16-18 year olds is probably the easiest one to make, but the other groups have clear merits too. The 3 Million are now very well organised so as to be able to push for the right to vote for EU citizens, and in the meantime record numbers of EU citizens have been getting UK passports too. Add to that the angry old men who will have passed away by 2020, and a newly politicised (on the electoral register) younger generation, and the demographics look better for Remain.
Then beyond that little lot the campaign for the next referendum would have to be radically different. Offensively critical of the lies that the Leave campaign told the last time. Critical that all their promises could not be kept. But also on the Remain side honest about what the EU is – none of the Cameron I can bend the EU the way I want to, I dislike it, but do vote to stay rubbish. A campaign fought with determination and gusto. And a campaign that was genuinely grassroots and pluralistic. Here are a few tips I wrote in April 2016 (oh well!), and some thoughts about the framing. Also in the absence of any unifying figure on the Remain side (and no, Blair, not you – even though you think it’s you), the campaign needs to use leading chracters from across all walks of life. And it needs to leverage the enduring (and burning) anger felt by Remain people, turning it into practical action. Last time the Leave side was more determined; next time Remain will be (and must be).
That’s how to do it folks.
Bring it on.