A second Brexit referendum would tear Britain apart

The UK electorate is split down the middle, but another vote would make things worse

Martin Wolf

Only another referendum might overturn Brexit, but there are arguments against such a vote © AFP

Does the idea of a second referendum on Brexit make sense? Many who share my view of the vote — that it is a huge error — would insist it does. Those on the other side would respond that the people have spoken: it would be wrong to ask again.

Yet it is the essence of democracy that voters may change their minds. If that were not the case, the UK should have accepted that the issue of membership was resolved by the referendum of 1975. The UK also has no rules on how and when to hold referendums. Parliament is entitled to call for such votes as and when it wishes. That is, after all, what makes it sovereign, as Brexiters desire.

To the argument that the referendum occurred less than two years ago, one may rejoin that the electorate has changed since then. Far more important, the referendum was merely on whether to leave or stay. Nobody knew exactly what leaving might mean. Voters can only choose between remaining and the reality of Brexit after the withdrawal agreement has been reached.

This, moreover, is not the only significant change since the referendum. With the election of Donald Trump, the geopolitical environment for the UK and the EU has been transformed, unambiguously for the worse. The mutation of the US, under the banner of “America First”, makes the strategic position of Europe as a whole (of which the UK is — and always will be — a part), far more fragile. Is this a good time to divide the UK from the rest of the EU? That will harm both sides, possibly grievously.

In addition, it is becoming clear that Brexit is indeed (and will continue to be) costly. The forecasts of a near-term catastrophe advanced by the Treasury (and several others) before the referendum have proved false. But instead, the British economic frog is being boiled slowly.

The UK economy will perform worse than the rest of Europe, except Italy, over the next two years, argues the IMF in its World Economic Outlook. Comparison of pre- and post-referendum forecasts from Consensus Forecasts suggests annual growth has fallen by around half a percentage point, relative to earlier hopes. Moreover, this is before Brexit has actually happened.

It might be argued that parliament could overturn Brexit on its own: a referendum is therefore unnecessary. Indeed it could. But the referendum has been made sacrosanct. Only another referendum might now overturn it.

Yet there are also arguments against another referendum. It is not altogether clear what question would be on the ballot. It could be between accepting the terms and remaining. But there is a third option: a no-deal Brexit. That could not be ruled out, since it is far from obvious that a withdrawal of the Article 50 application to leave would work: experts disagree on this.

Thus, such a vote might merely mean that the UK crashes out, which would be a true disaster.

Furthermore, even after the withdrawal agreement, the electorate would still not know the details, and, in all probability, much of the meat, of forthcoming deals on trade with the EU.

Another problem surely is timing. Suppose the exit deal were agreed in October. Thereupon parliament would call the second referendum on its terms. Agreeing the actual question, setting up the campaigns and holding the vote would surely take until well into 2019, close to the date of the exit. Theoretically, it might be possible to persuade the EU to postpone Brexit or even accept cancellation of the application to quit at that late date. In practice, I doubt it. I would guess that the EU has had enough of the UK’s endless prevarication (and rudeness) by now and would be most reluctant to halt the Brexit process.

There is, however, another vital matter: the domestic politics in the UK. The evidence suggests that the UK electorate remains split down the middle. The country is, as I have argued, in a sort of civil war. Suppose there were a 51 to 49 per cent vote against the deal. Would this really decide anything? It would be more likely to make the strife hotter. Last but not least, no major British party has a settled will against Brexit. The reasons Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is against the EU — that it is a capitalist plot — are the opposite of those on the Tory right — that it is a socialist one. But his opposition is real, all the same.

I am convinced the decision to leave was an unnecessary and disastrous error. I would love to see a way to halt the train to the station called Brexit. I wish everybody trying to do so the best of luck. But I don’t think it is do-able. Worse, I fear it might tear my country apart. My efforts will instead go to arguing for the best possible deal, including permanent participation in the customs union. It might be defeatist. But limiting the damage matters, too.

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