On the 23rd of June, 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a national referendum with a vote of 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union.  This was an unprecedented vote that shocked many around the world. In the aftermath of this vote, referred to as “Brexit” by many, the realization of exactly how complex it would be to leave the EU became clear as this marks the first time any nation has decided to leave the EU. The consensus among those in the UK is that there were two main reasons that people voted to leave the European Union: nationalism and inequity. Many of those within the UK cited their reason for leaving as the rising flow of immigrants into Europe and the inability of the UK to stop this flow of immigrants. Many others cited the rising economic inequality within the UK as their reason for leaving, stating that the amount of money the UK contributed to the EU was too much and could lead to an economic downturn within the country.
Because of the small margins on which Brexit was decided, as well as the incredible complexity involved in leaving the EU, many have been protesting and pushing Parliament to try and slow down or stop the process. On the 29th of March, 2017 Parliament voted to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which started a 2 year clock until the UK was supposed to officially leave the EU.  Just 17 days before the initial deadline for leaving the EU, Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the UK, presented her plan for Brexit which was firmly rejected in a vote by Parliament.  This left the UK with no plan as to how to leave the EU, and a very short timeline for doing so. In the aftermath of this devastating vote for May, Parliament voted to delay Brexit with the new date being the 31st of October, 2019. With such a divide within Parliament on how to proceed, and no consensus in sight, many have pushed for the possibility of holding a second referendum. But what would this referendum be on and would it be democratic to hold one in the first place?
In the conversation on whether to hold a second referendum both those arguing for and against another referendum have cited democratic rhetoric as a platform for their argument. Those arguing against another referendum say that democracy requires the UK to leave the EU as soon as they can, as the results of the referendum must be respected.  However those arguing for another referendum state that public opinion on the issue has shifted, and some even go as far as stating that people did not really understand the implications of what they were voting for during first referendum. As such, to respect democracy and have the government truly beholden to public opinion. a second referendum should be held. Which side is using the rhetoric of democracy correctly is unclear, mainly because the definition of democracy itself is unclear. One of the requirements in Dahl’s thick definition of democracy is that institutions must be created which ensure government policies depend on the votes and preferences of the people.  However in this case the vote of the people, namely the referendum results, may differ from the current public opinion on the subject. Therefore, using Dahl’s democratic rhetoric it is unclear whether it would be more democratic to ensure that Parliament makes policies that depend on the vote of the people, or that depend on their current preferences. Additionally, it is unclear if public opinion has really shifted enough to signal that following the vote of the people and leaving the EU would truly be going against the current public interest. A democracy is supposed to be a rule by the people, in which the people in power work for and pursue the interests of the citizens. However, in this case it is unclear whether upholding the original vote or holding a second referendum would be the democratic way to further those interests.
Those who argue against Brexit cite the importance of people trusting in their democracy and their government. They say that holding a second referendum would undermine the people’s trust in their democracy, and signal to them a departure from rule by the people. Many of those who voted to leave the EU were from rural areas who had not frequently voted in the past. The initial referendum was advertised to them as a chance for their voices to truly be heard, and as a signal that the government truly valued their opinion.  In this case, many argue that a second referendum would be going back on this principle. As many of the “elites” in British society, those in the upper classes, were against Brexit in the first place, a second referendum may signal to those who voted to leave that the government and elites in Parliament only value the opinion of the people if it matches their own. Some worry that a second referendum would demoralize voters who originally voted to leave, as they would have no reason to take the second vote seriously. To them, it might signal the political class’ lack of faith in the people. May herself as stated that “failing to leave the EU would be a ‘catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy’.”  The faith of the people in their democracy is essential for its stability, as explained by Lipset, as the government’s inability to enact policy can be seen as a signal of ineffectiveness and can erode people’s faith in their government.  This can even lead to democratic erosion. As such, it is imperative that Parliament acts quickly, no matter the decision they make. However, if a second referendum would severely undermine the people’s faith in their government it may do more to hurt democracy than to help it.
One proposed solution to this seemingly unsolvable dilemma is to hold a second referendum, not on whether or not the UK should leave the EU, but on how they should leave. This would involve a referendum with choices such as a new deal proposed by May that continued a relationship between the UK and the EU, and a proposed “no deal Brexit” in which the UK cuts all ties with the EU. This referendum seems to solve the problem of upholding democracy within the UK while still ensuring that the government is beholden to the people’s preferences. The government would not be completely disregarding the previous decision of the people because in the previous referendum the people never were able to decide how the UK should leave the EU, and what their relationship with it should be in the future.  This referendum would provide a chance for the people to voice their opinion and dictate how Brexit is implemented. It would also allow those who perhaps did not want Brexit to happen in the first place to shape its implementation in a way that is preferable to them without going against the previous referendum. This second referendum is unlikely to undermine the people’s faith in their democracy as it would be held on an entirely separate issue. It would also still ensure that the government’s policies are dependent on the votes and preferences of the people, as is the case in a democracy. If a new referendum was held, however, it could not include an option to simply not leave the EU. This inclusion of a third option would increase the likelihood that no option received 50% of the vote, thus further dividing the country. It would also shift the intention of the referendum away from being about how to leave the EU and toward whether Brexit should happen. This would not be respectful of the people’s previous vote on the subject and would be undermining democracy. Thus, holding a new referendum asking the people exactly how they want to leave the EU would ensure that democracy is upheld and give those who did not want to leave the EU a chance to voice their opinions without undermining the trust in democracy of those who did vote to leave the EU. “EU Referendum Results.” BBC News. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results.  Schraer, Rachel. “Article 50: Can the UK Revoke Brexit?” BBC News. April 11, 2019. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-47668466.  The New York Times. “The Brexit Plan Failed Again: What Happened, and What’s Next?” The New York Times. March 12, 2019. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/world/europe/theresa-may-brexit-vote.html.  O’Flynn, Ian. “Brexit: The Differing Versions of Democracy Deployed by Both Sides of Britain’s Political Impasse.” The Conversation. April 10, 2019. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://theconversation.com/brexit-the-differing-versions-of-democracy-deployed-by-both-sides-of-britains-political-impasse-114868.  Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition, By Robert A. Dahl. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1971.  Slater, Tom. “A Second Vote on Brexit Won’t Enhance Democracy. It Will Undermine It.” Foreign Policy. October 26, 2018. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/26/a-second-vote-on-brexit-wont-enhance-democracy-it-will-undermine-it-peoples-vote-referendum-theresa-may-sadiq-khan-labour-no-deal/.  Whyman, Tom. “Has Brexit Ruined Democracy?” Vice. February 11, 2019. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/panaxz/brexit-democracy-will-people-taking-back-control-second-referendum.  Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review53, no. 01 (1959): 69-105. doi:10.2307/1951731.  Papazoglou, Alexis. “Just Hold Another Referendum.” The New Republic. December 13, 2018. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://newrepublic.com/article/152652/just-hold-another-referendum.
Photo by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916, “Most in the UK know the imperfect EU is still better than a crash-out Brexit – but a grim fatalism has set in and time is running out”, Creative Commons Zero license