On democracy: the case for a referendum on the final Brexit deal

Amid the ongoing Brexit shitstorm, I find myself perplexed by the position of some – including HM Government – on the idea of a referendum on the final deal.

The government’s official response to a petition calling for said referendum reads as follows: “The UK Government is clear that it is now its duty to implement the will of the people and so there will be no second referendum.”

Contrary to the belief of some, I don’t dispute the result of the 2016 referendum. Regardless of my feelings as to how ill-conceived it was (in both motivation and execution), I nonetheless accept it was a decision that was democratically reached. However, I’m bound to point out a logical fallacy that lies at the heart of the government’s response, which is this: a referendum on the final Brexit deal would not be a “second referendum” (as in a rehash of the first). Rather, it would be a different referendum answering a different question.

The 2016 referendum result represents the view of the British people as to whether, in principle, they would rather leave or remain part of the EU, based on their beliefs as to what the relative benefits and consequences might be. A referendum on the final deal, on the other hand, would represent their view as to whether they feel it will be better in practice to follow through on the decision to leave, based on what the precise terms of departure actually are.

This is not the same thing at all.

Further, if you believe it was right and proper for the people to have a say in the UK’s future relationship with Europe by means of the former referendum then, logically, I struggle to comprehend why you wouldn’t adopt the same position with regard to a further one on the final deal.

The democratic rights and freedoms at play are no different. The only difference, in fact, is that, this time, it would be even more right and proper to exercise them. After all, leaving aside subjective opinions on the political and economic fallout, there were no immediate practical implications to the former referendum, other than to trigger Article 50 and commence negotiations. A vote on the final deal – when we will have much more substantial idea of what the upsides and/or downsides of leaving will actually be – is of infinitely greater consequence and therefore even more worthy of being subjected to a public vote.

Let’s state things even more baldly:

If you agreed with the need for the first referendum, there is no logical reason to oppose a further one on the final Brexit deal. There is only an emotional one – the fear that, this time, the result might be different.

This, too, I find perplexing, since, if the case for leaving is as clear and obvious as many Brexiteers purport it to be, then why should that fear exist?

There are only two viable answers to that question, it seems to me. The first is that people aren’t as confident in the benefits case for Brexit as they outwardly claim – or at least not as confident as they once were that a majority of their fellow citizens still see the world as they do. The second is the utter chaos within HM Government’s ranks and the consequent hash they seem to be making of the negotiations – in this case, the fear stemming from the prospect that the final deal bears little relation to what many Brexiteers wanted, and which therefore waters down or undermines many of the benefits they thought would flow from the “hardest” form of Brexit.

Here again, though, you would think this only adds more grist to the mill, strengthening the case for a referendum on the final deal even further. After all, it matters not what you think the deal on the table ought to be. It matters only what it is. And irrespective of whether you are a Leaver or a Remainer, if you think the country’s being sold a pup, you should have the chance to express that view.

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