It is difficult to summon up any enthusiasm for referendums. They are the very antithesis of our representative democracy whereby we choose between competing manifestos, elect MPs accordingly and then trust them to use their judgment to carry out their mandate.
Referendums undermine that principle. Worse, they present voters with a binary choice but then encourage them to exercise that choice based on a kaleidoscope of beliefs, prejudices and motives which may have little or nothing to do with the question on the ballot paper. So it was that David Cameron misguidedly offered us a referendum on Europe, which he thought he could not lose, purely in order to appease his Eurosceptic rebels and keep the Tory tribe intact.
He got the wrong result and the stark consequences are there for everyone to see. A bitterly divided country, where Brexiteers and Remainers alike believe they are no longer being listened to. And a parliamentary system broken almost beyond repair: conflicted party loyalties, a deadlocked House of Commons, democracy in stasis. Last night’s Commons votes did nothing to change that fundamentally.
Perverse as it sounds, the only way out of this may well be… another referendum. Admittedly, a People’s Vote is supported most enthusiastically by those who voted Remain. But don’t forget one of the first politicians to espouse the idea of a second referendum was Nigel Farage. Perhaps he realised belatedly that the vision he promised the nation in 2016 was a fantasy Brexit.
A People’s Vote is the only obvious way out of the impasse Parliament finds itself in. It would also allow us to decide whether to leave or remain with the benefit of a vastly improved understanding of the pros and cons of EU membership. And crucially, it would head off the catastrophic prospect which continues to hang in the air of a no-deal Brexit and the untold damage that could do to jobs, trade, investment and living standards. Empty supermarket shelves and higher food prices in the short term and, in the long term, a £165 billion reduction in the output of the UK economy.
Theresa May still wishes to keep a no- deal on the table as if it were a bargaining lever. But threatening to jump off a cliff unless your demands are met is not a negotiating tactic, it is national suicide.
A growing number of companies from Airbus and Sony to Jaguar Land Rover and now Sainsbury’s and M&S are warning of the dire consequences of leaving without a deal, either by accident or design. But business also needs to articulate what it would like to see happen instead. Only a handful of small trade associations have voiced support for a People’s Vote. Where are the big battalions: the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce, the EEF, the Federation of Small Businesses?
As Theresa May heads to Brussels in search of something she almost certainly will not get — a legal binding change removing the Irish backstop from the withdrawal treaty — they should be telling her to stop trying to reconcile the impossible and focus instead on the art of the possible.
The danger of the UK crashing out of Europe without a deal remains very real. The first step towards preventing this must be to postpone Article 50. But Brussels will only grant such a delay if the UK can produce a plan for what happens next. In the absence of cross-party agreement on how we might exit, the obvious plan is a second referendum. Preferably with a voting age lowered to 16.
It is impossible to know the outcome. Some who voted Leave in June 2016 will no doubt change their minds having peered into the abyss. But equal numbers of Remainers could vote to leave in protest at the way the UK has been treated since by the EU.
Any People’s Vote would need to be deliverable and decisive. This could be achieved by making it mandatory and structured to produce a clear majority. One solution might be to offer voters a choice between Remain, Soft Brexit and Hard Brexit and ask them to nominate their first and second preferences. The least popular choice would then be discarded and the second preferences of those who voted for that option distributed between the remaining two.
It may or may not resolve the thorny issue of the Irish border. But it would receive proper billing, along with many other considerations lost in the fog of myth and countermyth in 2016.
So, let’s have a People’s Vote to resolve our crisis of democracy. And then let’s make it the last referendum we ever hold.