Why a sec­ond Brexit ref­er­en­dum is both in­evitable – and the right choice

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - OPINION - REG WHI­TAKER

Dis­tin­guished re­search pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at York Univer­sity and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria

On Dec. 11, the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment will face one of the most mo­men­tous de­ci­sions in its long his­tory. The ques­tion is de­cep­tively sim­ple: Mem­bers must de­cide to ac­cept or re­ject the fi­nal Brexit terms ne­go­ti­ated with the Euro­pean Union. If the terms are ac­cepted, the way ahead is ini­tially clear. Bri­tain will leave the EU, with short-term ar­range­ments giv­ing way even­tu­ally to a fi­nal exit set­tle­ment. The long-term ef­fects are any­body’s guess, but the un­cer­tain­ties around the im­pact of Brexit pale be­side the black hole into which Bri­tain may fall if the deal is re­jected.

This prospect has to be taken se­ri­ously be­cause it seems highly un­likely that Par­lia­ment will ac­cept Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal. Her own party is in open re­volt, sev­eral min­is­ters hav­ing re­signed and the Leave wing of her cau­cus in in­tran­si­gent op­po­si­tion. The Demo­cratic Union­ist party on which her mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment has been de­pen­dent refuses to coun­te­nance the ar­range­ments for the Ir­ish border, and the op­po­si­tion Labour party will vote over­whelm­ingly to re­ject the deal as ne­go­ti­ated.

What hap­pens im­me­di­ately af­ter re­jec­tion is a grave ques­tion. There has been some talk about Ms. May head­ing back to Brus­sels to try to get some ad­di­tional tweaks but the EU has al­ready de­clared these are the best terms Bri­tain can ex­pect, and in any event, it is un­likely that the hard-line Leave op­po­nents can now be mol­li­fied by tweaks.

Fol­low­ing a re­jec­tion vote, a no-deal “crash out” could au­to­mat­i­cally oc­cur next March. As Bank of Eng­land Gover­nor Mark Car­ney has re­cently in­di­cated, an eco­nomic dis­as­ter on a scale com­pa­ra­ble to the fi­nan­cial crash of 2008 and the Great Re­ces­sion would likely en­sue.

Labour will call for a non-con­fi­dence mo­tion in Ms. May’s gov­ern­ment in hopes of pre­cip­i­tat­ing an elec­tion. But it is hard to see how a Labour vic­tory could re­solve the Brexit cri­sis, since Labour has no cred­i­ble plan to re­place Ms. May’s deal.

The in­ca­pac­ity of both main par­ties to grap­ple co­her­ently with Brexit is at the heart of the prob­lem. But this same in­ca­pac­ity may point the way to the only pos­si­ble so­lu­tion.

There has been a grow­ing move­ment in­side and out­side Par­lia­ment to fol­low a re­jec­tion of the Brexit deal with a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, a “peo­ple’s vote” that would put Ms. May’s deal as the Leave op­tion along­side an op­tion to Re­main – in ef­fect, a re­run of the ini­tial vote in 2016, but with the specifics of the leave op­tion laid out in de­tail.

There are three rea­sons to think a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum may be not just a last des­per­ate re­course, but the only po­ten­tial way out of a dan­ger­ous im­passe.

First, Par­lia­ment and the po­lit­i­cal par­ties have demon­strated in­com­pe­tence on Europe. Both Tory and Labour par­ties are deeply split over Europe, but they have been for decades. Europe has been a kind of wild card in Bri­tish pol­i­tics, cut­ting across the right-left di­vide that gen­er­ally an­i­mates party com­pe­ti­tion. The en­tire Brexit cri­sis was pre­cip­i­tated by the reck­less de­ci­sion of for­mer prime minister David Cameron to call a ref­er­en­dum as a fool­hardy strat­egy for si­lenc­ing the tur­bu­lent Euroskep­tic wing of his gov­ern­ment. But if the right wing of the Tory party has long been Euroskep­tic, the left wing of the Labour party, now firmly in charge un­der Jeremy Cor­byn, has just as long viewed the EU as a cap­i­tal­ist club that a so­cial­ist Bri­tain would best see off. A Par­lia­ment made up of these two di­vided par­ties is par­a­lyzed over Europe.

Sec­ond, once the Pan­dora’s box of di­rect democ­racy was opened in 2016 and the peo­ple voiced, al­beit by a small ma­jor­ity, the will to leave the EU, Par­lia­ment lost le­git­i­macy to re­verse that de­ci­sion. Bri­tain has a long tra­di­tion of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy but this has been se­verely strained in the cur­rent age of pop­ulist dis­trust of elites and elit­ist in­sti­tu­tions. Brexit is the Bri­tish vari­ant of Don­ald Trump and the pop­ulist par­ties ris­ing in Europe. A sec­ond ref­er­en­dum may not re­verse the re­sult of the first, of course, but it may be the only le­git­i­mate way to ei­ther reaf­firm or over­turn that orig­i­nal de­ci­sion.

Third, an­other ref­er­en­dum of­fers the most demo­crat­i­cally re­spect­ful ap­proach to deal­ing with the unan­tic­i­pated con­se­quences of the ini­tial vote. What did 52 per cent of vot­ers ac­tu­ally opt for when they chose Leave? Ms. May of­fered a re­mark­ably un­help­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion: “Brexit means Brexit.” Leave of­fered an open-ended wish list with no re­al­ity check that Brexit pro­po­nents were quick to fill in with wildly ex­ag­ger­ated claims for ben­e­fits and dis­missal of any down­side. Now, vot­ers can have a con­crete idea of what Brexit would mean in prac­tice and de­cide whether it meets their ex­pec­ta­tions.

Leave sup­port­ers have sug­gested that a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum would con­sti­tute an in­sult to the peo­ple who voted to Leave in 2016. Non­sense. There is noth­ing de­fin­i­tive in a sin­gle ref­er­en­dum at one point in time, es­pe­cially when Leave of­fered an imag­i­nary dream Brexit. A sec­ond time, the same vot­ers – and oth­ers who ei­ther did not bother to vote in 2016 or have since come of vot­ing age – will have the op­por­tu­nity to as­sess the only fea­si­ble Brexit deal against re­main­ing in the EU. A sec­ond vote grants full re­spect to the peo­ple. Leave vot­ers may still vote to leave but this time it should at least be with eyes wide open.

It is a para­dox of the age of pop­ulism that in the Brexit case the only an­swer to too much democ­racy may turn out to be even more democ­racy.

The in­ca­pac­ity of both main par­ties to grap­ple co­her­ently with Brexit is at the heart of the prob­lem. But this same in­ca­pac­ity may point the way to the only pos­si­ble so­lu­tion.

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