Britain could consider its trajectory between 2015 and the present day as inextricable from that of the career of Nigel Farage. In 2015 he failed to win his seat at the general election, allowing David Cameron’s Conservative-majority government to breathe well-polished, well-spun hope onto a fast-growing Britain. In 2016 he returned to conquer the referendum called by Cameron on EU membership.
In 2017, the government then led by Theresa May largely proceeded to adopt his hard Brexit agenda before in January 2018, comments he made to Channel 5’s Wright Stuff sparked the first significant calls for a second referendum. At least the first calls the media has taken seriously – precisely because they originated from “Mr Brexit”.
Building momentum for a second vote
Sick of ‘remoaners’ lamenting the lack of information, the weak and unstable preparations, and inescapable fact that they lost the debate and campaign, the Farage outburst on Channel 5 might be read as an impulsive backlash against former prime minister Tony Blair and his frequent rhetoric. Or alternatively Farage might be calculating a passage back into the political limelight.
Either way, senior Remain campaigners have been more and more vocal in calls for reversing the process. An example is Lord Adonis’ recent resignation on the grounds that Brexit has provoked a “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. He compared the process to Trumpism and promised to do all that he can to block the flagship EU withdrawal bill from passing through the House of Lords. The upper chamber is brimming with powerful remainers and could derail and delay the legislative process of leaving the EU.
Farage’s argument for the second referendum ultimately boils down (at least rhetorically) to a distrust in the political elite to actually enact a Brexit he is happy with, and he seeks to “kill off” the debate for a generation. He told BBC Radio 4: “Of course I don’t want one, we won a referendum and that should have been that. But I do not trust the sheer dishonesty of our political class.” This came in wake of a meeting between Farage and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who allegedly convinced the former UKIP leader that a “decent deal” was very much off the table.
Is it possible or likely?
The European Union’s voice of moderation, Donald Tusk, continues to insist on the possibility of a Britsh U-turn. EU “hearts are still open,” he told MEPs in Strasbourg on 16 January, citing the equivocal 2012 words of the then backbencher David Davis: “if a democracy can not change its mind it ceases to be a democracy.”
But support for the second referendum has been explicit only among those now exiled from Westminster such as Blair, Nick Clegg and now Adonis. Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson among others are vehemently against the notion with the latter eloquently speaking for the public stating: “I’m not convinced that the public is absolutely gagging for another Brexit referendum.”
Johnson is both correct and incorrect in his statement. Although a recent poll points towards an increase in public support for a second referendum, only 57 percent who expressed a view would vote for one. It’s unlikely to prove enough to force the issue. It’s easy for remainers to allow themselves to be swept up by Farage’s comments but the reality of a second referendum is politically improbable under the current, predominantly eurosceptic government. The reality check is well-articulated by Stephen Bush in the New Statesman:
“The question is a bit redundant as there isn’t a majority for another referendum vote in the current composition of the House of Commons, nor is it easy to see how one might emerge before the next general election, which isn’t due until after we have formally left the European Union.”
The hypothetical consequences?
That said, it’s useful to imagine the hypothetical implications as the reality is not impossible. As Farage argued, the second referendum would surely end the great British European debate for a generation. Labour would likely be split, suffering an existential crisis once again as a party whose leadership is predominantly eurosceptic catering for a remain-voting support-base.
Chuka Umunna, a former shadow cabinet minister, said Farage was for the “first time in his life” making a valid point and the British people have “every right to keep an open mind about Brexit”. Corbyn, a lifelong eurosceptic, has been notably quiet on Brexit in general and its difficult to imagine Labour galvanising the undecided to vote to remain.
Would we have a revolt on our hands from those who voted leave? The first referendum was toxic enough, writes Phil McDuff in the Guardian; the second could lead to a further increase in racially and nationally-motivated violence. It’s difficult to argue that a second referendum would bring with it any unifying force for a clearly-divided Britain. The polarisation of the first vote may well be exacerbated by a second.
The argument that it is anti-democratic is refutable on the premise that a democracy is theoretically forever free to change its mind, echoing the words of David Davis. The argument that Britain is a true democracy where individual voters actually hold the de facto power to enact change is an altogether different question.
It might be suggested however, that the perceived lack of individual political power was itself a driving force in the first for the Leave campaign. A second referendum might well weaken the indecisive Britain’s reputation overseas, though many would counter this by asserting that Brexit would do far more damage. What cannot be denied is that, had the Remain camp won the first referendum, we would not be having this conversation. This is certainly a fair fuel with which Brexiteers can feed the fire.
The wheel of self-destruction
The main argument against a second referendum is tied to the the idea that the outcome of the vote would be similar to that of 2016. Has the Remain campaign really unified to formulate a coherent outline for why the referendum should be held – aside from lamenting the sheer incompetence of the current government and the economic uncertainty of leaving the single market and customs union?
The problem with the a second referendum debate is that it diverts the near-universal frustration with Theresa May’s premiership towards Brexit. This may well be a fair diversion but Labour are not be blameless. Their opposition has been political, unhelpful and has often not represented the best interests of the British population.
Britain’s adversarial two-party system is ostracising the country from its own future in which both the Labour and Conservative parties are prioritising internal politics over either trying to ensure a successful Brexit, or trying to understand why Brexit cannot be allowed to occur. This was the primary reason for which Cameron called the referendum in the first place, to silence the eurosceptic branch of his party.
In short, while the second referendum is unlikely to happen in the current Westminster environment, if it were to take place, there exist few indicators to reassure the British population that both campaigns will be built around honest, apolitical sentiment acting in the best interests of the country. A second referendum is unlikely to solve any of the real underlying challenges facing a breaking Britain.