Across Europe one can imagine people asking themselves simply what the hell is going on with British politics at the moment. And they would be right to do so: Theresa May’s Brexit negotiation deal failed cataclysmically, defeated by 230 votes, the biggest loss in modern history. Yet the next day she survived an attempt to remove her government from power, winning a no-confidence vote. So, what happens now? If we knew the answer to that, there’d be no point in this article. Nonetheless, it is possible to map out a few options, one of which is a second referendum.
It’s a popular option as well: one recent poll has it as the number one choice, with 36% of those asked favoring another referendum. Last year, the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign was set up, demanding a second referendum on the final Brexit deal that May brings to the country. There are indeed sound arguments for doing this. Chief among them is that two-and-a-half years ago there was no specification on what Brexit actually meant, with the options simply being Remain or Leave. Having a second referendum with the competing options on the ballot would allow the British people to be more precise in saying which direction they think the country should go. It would also cast aside any fears that the people are going to be betrayed by the government, as it gives the electorate the final say. It must be said as well that there is an attractive clarity in giving the public the decision, considering what a mess Government and Parliament are in, rife with division, incompetence and ulterior motives. A quick analysis of the current general situation: May, who voted Remain, and her government, split fairly evenly, need Parliament to vote through a deal. Parliament, which is mostly Remain, represents the people, who voted to Leave. Perhaps a second referendum would cut through all this rubbish and end the matter once and for all.
But that’s just the problem; it wouldn’t settle the issue at all. Referendums are creators, not healers, of division. Generally speaking, for a standard two-option referendum, the society in question will be split into three groups: those for, those against and those unsure. All the referendum serves to do is strengthen the opinions of the first two groups against each other, to the point of extreme animosity, with the result decided by the arbitrary lottery of whichever side most of the third group decide to pick on the day. Hardly the stable consensus upon which to change a nation’s future, is it? Now imagine having a referendum where there are not two options, but three, four or who knows how many, as would be the case were the People’s Vote campaign to get their way. Too much choice can lead to paralysis, as anyone familiar with Deliveroo will testify.
And here lies the fundamental problem: what do we do if the government gives the British people another chance to say which path the country should take, but the people can only reply “we don’t really know”? The British people have no real idea what no deal, May’s deal or any of the plethora of possibilities would entail. What’s more, for the government or Parliament to ask them is both a sickening deflection of duty (politicians aren’t paid £77,379 a year to pass on these big decisions to the taxpayer) and a deeply worrying misunderstanding of parliamentary democracy. Ever since some clever men in America realized 240 years ago that good people are occasionally (or often) susceptible to bouts of passion and ignorance, it has been thought best to elect representatives of the people, who have the time and the skills to make the important calls for us. Now whilst skill is probably not the first word that comes to mind when assessing how the Government has handled Brexit, I still trust May to do a better job of deciding where Britain should go than Michael, who’s concerned about missing out on promotion, or Emily, single mum of three, or Clara, who – you get the point. Someone needs to give the People’s Vote campaigners a five-minute history lesson on the problems innate to direct democracy. Only 5 minutes, though: David Cameron’s overdue the same lesson by a few years.
Joking aside, Britain is at a crossroads, not just in terms of EU membership but more fundamentally regarding how our democracy operates. May herself seems to realize this: speaking to Parliament on January 21, she said “I fear a second referendum would set a difficult precedent that could have significant implications for how we handle referendums in this country.” Spot on. Direct democracy is the antithesis of social cohesion; given how intertwined politics is with a nation’s culture, to integrate referendums into British political culture is a grave mistake. For it is never ‘just one more’ and there is no halfway house: having referendums some of the time but leaving it up to the politicians for the rest is not a sustainable or sensible position. May faces many choices over Brexit in the coming weeks and months, all of them important. But beneath the convoluted debate over backstop arrangements, transition periods and no-deals lies the most important choice of all: what type of democracy should Britain be? I pray this time politicians have the stomach to take on the decision themselves.
James Creedy Smith is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.