Like everyone nowadays, I can predict everything except the future. But if MPs reject the government’s Withdrawal Agreement (whenever it ends up being put before the Commons), there is one outcome that many are campaigning for: a second referendum. It is particularly supported by Remainers, who see it as the only democratically legitimate way to overturn the result of the first referendum, and so provide an exit from Brexit. From former prime ministers down, the cries for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ are becoming deafening. The arguments in favour can be persuasive: we now know (sort of) on what terms we will leave the EU, we know more about Brexit, the public mood is changing: give the people a final say.
But Remainers wanting a second referendum – and not all do – should be careful what they wish for. A second referendum would be far more divisive than the first, possibly leaving a permanently scarred country. And it would also almost certainly fail to overturn Brexit.
A second referendum would be more divisive than the first because it would start from a point where people’s positions are already entrenched. It won’t be about wavering voters making up their minds based on reasoned debate (or even lies), but rather a tug of war for supremacy between two political tribes. Passions across the population have been aroused. For many there would be a feeling of betrayal by the political class, who have refused to deliver what the voters asked for. Among an already disillusioned electorate, it could snuff out any lingering faith in democracy. Politicians across the spectrum are already warning it would lead to civil unrest as activists give up on the ballot box and frustration boils over. Westminster was surprised after the Scottish referendum how the nationalist spirit – once roused – just carried on, fuelling the SNP to political supremacy. I personally hate living in an already fractured country with such a passionate issue dividing families, friendships and communities, and that would just get worse. I want the country to start healing, uniting and moving forwards.
Remainers are keen on the second referendum because they believe they can win it. They point to polls showing a narrow majority now oppose Brexit. But polls are erratic and actually the remarkable thing about them is how little they have moved, given the turbulence of the last two years. It is more noticeable that people have entrenched their positions rather than changed them. Polls also get it wrong: they almost all predicted Remain would win last time.
But the main difference is that – unless we have a change of government first – the government will this time campaign for Brexit rather than against it. In 2016, the entire establishment – all the major political parties, the government, the main industry, consumer and trade union groups and academia – were generally united in their support for Remain. This time round, the government can pull all the legal levers at its disposal to campaign for Brexit. This would also mute opposition from much of the rest of the establishment groups, such as industry bodies, who hate to campaign against the government of the day.
Although Remainers can point to the chaos of the negotiations, I think the Brexiteers narrative would be more strengthened than theirs. The sense of betrayal among Brexiteers would be a big motivator on the campaign trail, getting them out and knocking on doors, and arm them with a compelling narrative on the doorstep that you can’t trust the self-serving elites. The Remainers would have to face charges that they are sore losers who refuse to listen to voters – and nobody likes a sore loser. The public mood may be to shout louder: didn’t you hear us first time?
Remainers say we now know far more about Brexit than we did two years ago. But do we really? Matthew Parris declared recently that ‘Brexit has failed’. But Brexit hasn’t even happened yet. What we do know for certain is that the recession that was predicted in the immediate aftermath of a vote for Brexit didn’t happen. We also found that negotiating with 27 countries while led by a government without a majority, a deeply split party and a fractious parliament is very difficult. We have learnt that divorce negotiations are painful, but that doesn’t mean people should never get divorced. None of that tells us much about Brexit itself. All we have left are predictions, just as we had two years ago.
Finally, I think many Remainers underestimate the deeply rebellious mood of the great British public. The Brexit referendum was the first time in British history that the public voted for change against the government’s wishes. In every other referendum, they either voted for the status quo and rejected change (Northern Ireland 1973, EC membership 1975, AV 2011, Northern assembly, Scottish independence 2014), or when they did vote for change they voted the way the government wanted them to (Good Friday agreement, Welsh Assembly 1997, London Mayoralty, Scottish Government). For voters to reject the government and the entire weight of the establishment, and ask for a change as dramatic as Brexit shows an historically unprecedented rebelliousness. And I see no sign that it has dissipated in the last two years – rather the reverse. Remainers, be careful what you wish for.
Anthony Browne is former director of Policy Exchange and Europe correspondent of the Times