Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Re-running referendums

I’m not overly impressed by some of the reaction to the referendum decision.  On the one hand, there are those who are declaring that the people have spoken, that makes the decision absolute and irreversible, and there can be no re-run under any circumstances.  In the case of some of them, I find myself wondering whether, deep down, they were in favour of Brexit all along, but pretended not to be for reasons of loyalty, ambition or whatever.  On the other hand, there are those who are declaring that there simply must be another vote on the issue – basically, because the people got it wrong. 
The underlying problem is that the decision was taken – could only be taken – on the basis of ignorance (on both sides) as to the actual consequences, because the detail hadn’t been filled in.  And it was never going to be filled in in advance: why would the other 27 members ever agree to sit down and waste huge amounts of time and effort on drawing up a plan for a situation which was hypothetical and might never happen?  The result was that the campaigners (again, on both sides) were left with a free hand to fill in the gaps themselves, and they duly did so, plucking assumptions and figures out of thin air with gay abandon in the process.
In all of that, there were direct parallels with the Scottish referendum in 2014.  In that case, it was the UK Government who were (entirely naturally) unwilling to commit time and effort to negotiating the detail for a hypothetical outcome.  In the Scottish case, that lack of detail worked to the advantage of the unionist side; in the case of the EU referendum, it favoured the exit camp (although the remain camp had probably assumed that it would favour them).
I wonder whether it might not be better in such cases to state at the outset that there’s a two-stage process involved.  The first stage would be a simple yes/no on the principle, with a clear understanding that the final deal would be subject to another vote.  A ‘yes’ in such cases does little more than instruct the government of the day to undertake as much work and negotiation as is necessary to flesh out the detail before submitting it to a second vote.
Had that been the case in Scotland, I suspect that the outcome might well have been a ‘yes’ to the principle, but with no guarantee at all that the people would follow that through when hard details of the terms were available.  A second ‘yes’, to the detail, would be a clear and final vote for independence; a ‘no’ would probably have killed the idea for at least a generation.  In the case of the EU referendum, I’d guess that a vote on such terms would probably have given a bigger majority to the exit camp at that first stage – but I suspect that, once the details were known, that majority might well evaporate.  Even without the detail, there are plenty of those who voted leave who seem to be suffering from a degree of regret.
Having to vote twice would not please everyone; but surely having the detail to hand before taking such a major decision with such long term implications would be better for us all in the end?
It’s too late now, of course; the vote has been held, and the terms on which it was held were clear to all.  I suppose that, once the details are clear, then if there is clear, hard, consistent, and sustained evidence that a second vote would yield a dramatically different result, then there might be grounds for considering holding another referendum.  But, in the absence of that sort of evidence, demanding a re-run looks certain only to add to the degree of disconnect between the political elite and the electorate, something which seems to have been a significant factor in the outcome.


Peter Freeman said...

Would it be correct to say that a significant number of those who voted leave, did so on the basis of mis-information and even downright lies? Particularly on the hot button issues of the UK financial contribution to the EU and immigration controls.
A referendum yielding a result under those conditions could justify a re run. In a similar way to a court agreeing to a re-trial on the basis of incorrect evidence being presented in the first trial.
Is this an unreasonable argument?

John Dixon said...

Whilst I agree with the logic, the difficulty is that if any vote were to be annulled on the basis that one side or another had lied, no vote would ever be valid! And in this case, most of the lies were exposed as such before polling day.

People are, ultimately, entitled to believe lies if they wish; democracy includes the right to make bad decisions as well as good ones (even assuming that 'bad' and 'good' could be defined other than in a subjective way in any case). No, I see no justification for a re-run without solid evidence that a sufficient number of people have changed their minds in the light of events. Whilst recent polls do suggest some change, I think we'd need to see that evidence over a period before politicians would be brave enough to legislate for another vote.