Posted: 2019-02-25

Labour's belated support for the possibility of a second referendum increases the chance that this may happen. If so, here's how to do it



We constantly hear from Brexiteers about politicians betraying the will of the people and demands that they ‘get on with it’. Yet the divisions in the UK Parliament reflect those in the wider society. The percentages tell it all. 52% to 48% to leave is not exactly a clear-cut victory and, and, of course, Remainers won in Scotland and Northern Ireland by bigger majorities (62% and 56% respectively). 


Again, almost 13m people didn’t vote at all. In fact, if you include these non-voters, 17.4m or only 37% of an electorate of 46.5m voted to leave. It is interesting to compare this statistic with the referendum on a Scottish Parliament back in 1979. 52% vote for it and 48% against, but it was defeated because Parliament had set the minimum threshold of 40% of the total electorate before such a significant change could take place.


In many countries and institutions a supermajority is required for any important change. Mergers in business require 75% support of shareholders to go through. A two-thirds majority in the papal conclave is required to elect a new pope. Amendments to the American constitution require a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three quarters of the state legislatures. The Montenegrin independence referendum in 2006 required a 55% threshold (which it narrowly achieved). 


Supermajorities make sense where a major change in the polity is being contemplated. Democracy is literally ‘people rule’, so it is perfectly logical in such situations to ensure that ‘the people’ are as close to being unanimous as is practically possible. Unionists in Northern Ireland tend to equate democracy with what a simple majority wants because it enabled them to rule the province as effectively a one-party state for half a century.


Brexiteers maintain that it is an insult to the people to seek a second referendum because it implies that they arrived at the ‘wrong’ decision in 2016. But there is nothing sacred or permanent about democracy. Churchill described it as “the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Three years after the vote, we have the benefit of new information and a greater understanding of the complexities of the issue. As Keynes said, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”.


It is therefore not too late to hold another people’s vote and to require a supermajority  – say 55% (as in Colorado) or even 60% (as in Florida)  – to reverse the original Leave decision. 55% is probably closest to what most Remainers would accept.


Brexiteers could not convincingly reject a referendum on these terms: are they really suggesting that they are not confident of obtaining more than 40% of the vote second time around? 


As for us Remainers, we would be grateful for a second bite of the cherry, redouble our efforts to persuade sceptics of the benefits of EU membership, and take hope from the fact that 67% voted to stay in the 1975 EU referendum. This was the same percentage by which the Lisbon Treaty was approved in Ireland in a second referendum in 2009, a mere 17 months after it was rejected by 53.4% of voters.


A second referendum in the UK with a supermajority required to reverse the first one would surely be acceptable to the vast majority both inside and outside Parliament and would restore some stability to a system which is currently in chaos – or, as Sean O’Casey wrote,  "a terrible state o' chassis”.


Ironically, a second referendum was actually being advocated by some prominent Brexiteers before the June 2016 vote. In 2011 Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Commons: “we could have two might make more sense to have the second referendum after the negotiation is completed”. In May 2016, a month before the vote, Nigel Farage stated that a 52/48 Remain victory would be ‘unfinished business by a long way’ and that “win or lose this battle, we will win this war”.


There is nothing final about a referendum, any more than an election. In a free society people are allowed to change their mind – even admit that they got it wrong – and others have every right to try to persuade them to do so. Otherwise the same party would be in power in perpetuity. Moreover, in the UK referendums are only advisory. They cannot be legally binding because a fundamental principle of the British constitution is the sovereignty of Parliament. It would be another irony to ignore this principle while maintaining that a major motive for leaving the EU is precisely to restore this sovereignty.


The fact is that the vast majority of MPs are Remainers. A survey before the referendum indicated that there were 480 and only 159 Leavers. So the vote demonstrated a major conflict between Parliament and the people. Does this prove that MPs are out of touch? No, for a basic objection to referendums has always been that politicians are often ahead of the voters, who tend to be more easily influenced by emotional campaigns and prejudice. The death penalty is an obvious example.


According to a YouGov poll published on 10th August, a majority now favour a second referendum and the UK would vote to stay in the EU by 53% to 47% if asked again. This shift in public opinion is confirmed by researchers at the Focaldata consumer analytics company, published in the Observer (12th August), which indicates that 341 of the UK’s 632 constituencies would now vote Remain. Parliament and the people are moving towards alignment.


There are sound reasons for having a second referendum, not least that the Brexit result was tainted. Many of the Leave campaign’s misleading statements, such as the fantasy promise of £350m a week for the NHS, have been exposed. They have also been found by the Electoral Commission to have cheated by funnelling £675,315 through the pro-Brexit youth group BeLeave, thus exceeding their £7m spending limit. 


Again, some of the implications of Brexit are becoming clearer. For example, Northern Ireland’s beef, sheep and hill farming sectors have joined with red meat processors to warn that 'No Deal' would be a disastrous outcome. Sam Chesney, UFU beef and lamb Chairman said that they would face up to 60 per cent tariffs on exports and unfair competition in the UK market from lower standard meat imported from outside Europe.


One possibility after the negotiations is a two-stage referendum. In the first stage voters would be asked whether they still wished to leave the EU. If they didn’t, then no second stage would be needed. If they did, then the second stage would ask whether they favoured the deal negotiated by the government or a ‘No Deal’ decision.


This second referendum would provide a clearer picture of the public’s considered attitude to the EU and help to heal the deep divisions thrown up by the first vote in June 2016.



Brian McClinton 25th February