Second Referendum? When was the first one?

If there was a referendum asking voters to choose between continued membership of the EU under the current agreement, or with a settled deal between Britain and the EU after we’ve left, then I must have been on holiday when it took place!

On the 23rd of June 2016 there was a referendum and people voted for something – that much we know.

After a campaign that was described as having “glaring democratic deficiencies” by the Electoral Reform Society, people voted to leave the European Union.  They did so for a variety of reasons.  Some thought it would reduce immigration, others believed they would get more money for the NHS, and some did so based on vague and indefinable notions of sovereignty.

Everyone voted in good faith. It’s wrong to accuse Leave voters of not knowing what they were voting for, or not understanding what they were doing – everyone makes decisions based on how they interpret their own reality.

However nobody can possibly predict the consequences that will now ensue because of this decision.

A referendum on the final Brexit deal is essential.

This wouldn’t be a ‘second ‘referendum because there never was a first referendum on a negotiated deal.

In order for people to vote sensibly in a binary referendum then, surely – with an urgent appeal to common sense – you have to give them two options that can be directly compared and scrutinised against each other.  The 2016 vote failed to do this.  It was a campaign of sentiment not fact: a saga presented as zealous nationalism VS apocalyptic defeatism (‘Project Fear’), and zealous nationalism brought them out to princely turnout sum of 72.2% and won the day.

Brexit is likely but it is not inevitable.  Public opinion could change everything.

So far there is a growing trend where people think it was wrong to leave the EU. This is happening because as the negations proceed, it becomes apparent that untangling ourselves from the a union we’ve been a part of for decades is a lot more complicated than what was sold to us in the campaign.   

But the debate so far continues to centre on having a ‘second’ referendum.

We need to change the discussion from a ‘second’ referendum, to a referendum on the final deal.  It’s not a trivial point about wording; the two have very different connotations.

The option of a “second” referendum may put people off because on the face of it, this comes across undemocratic and divisive.  Also the timing is ambiguous, possibly within the next few weeks or even days, and people will be fatigued.

A referendum on the final deal, by contrast, is a different scenario.  It doesn’t suggest any time soon, it would have to be at the end of the negotiations when the deal which has been negotiated by politicians behind closed doors is known.  People can, at long last, compare and contrast the status quo on the one hand, with life post-Brexit on the other.

Already, framing the discussion in terms of a vote on the negotiated deal seems to be working: 50% of people support a vote on the final deal and 34% oppose.

A potential deal between the UK and the EU was nearly reached, but thwarted by the DUP.  It highlights how feeble May’s position really is, but it also makes it clear that Brexit has now lost the threadbare democratic legitimacy that it had: a party with 0.9% of the UK vote share is, from behind the scenes, pulling the strings and dictating what sort of deal the entire country will get; never mind Scotland, or the city of London, or indeed the opinions of the entire 48% of people that voted to remain.  Theresa May’s tawdry deal with the reactionary DUP has totally undermined her negotiating position.  And as if irony couldn’t take any more hits – Northern Ireland voted to remain.

To restore democratic legitimacy, the Brexit process must be returned to the people so they can either reject or sign off on whatever version of Brexit Theresa May can put together.

* Chris Park is studying for an MLitt in Media and Communication in Glasgow and is a member of the Liberal Democrats

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  • I am as keen as anyone to stay in the EU but this is NOT the topic that is going to have any chance of revising our fortunes. We need to shout about domestic social and welfare issues. That is what matter where it matters.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Dec '17 - 2:04pm

    Chris, this is as it has been promoted throughout, only the media call it the second referendum.

    The fact is people are not daft. They yearn , we do, for those things that improve our situations.

    Nobody sees the EU as doing that.

    The EU needs to make itself an attractive proposition.

    It rarely does this even as we know it is more a force of good than not.

    But talk of ever closer union from supposed liberals or Liberal Democrats of the EU puts paid to any prospect of this land not going for Brexit.

    The thing that Tim and Vince did not and do not do, is get together with the Liberals of the EU and say to them, we are at the heart of this internationalism, we are of the essence of it, we were amongst the founding signatories and prime movers behind the creation of the London, based Liberal international, we do not think you get the desire to be more autonomous, more local, more national, now, but not to retreat into a bunker.

    To Vehostdt , to Macron, pack it in , all this homogenised milk EU, nonsense, get with it, get organic !

  • Richard Underhill 7th Dec '17 - 2:10pm

    The first referendum was in 1975. Previously a referendum was thought to be unconstitutional, but the UK does not have a written constitution, but a flexible, unwritten arrangement.
    Shirley Williams’ memoirs show that initially the population did not believe that the vote was for them, but many meetings in village halls persuaded them of its reality. NO voters included Michael Foot and Enoch Powell). YES voters included Roy Jenkins, David Steel and Edward Heath ‘The Europals’. There were large majorities for YES in every region, so that David Dimbleby’s attempt to cover the results became a bit of a damp squib. An important factor was the faster economic growth of the existing member states. The Lord Chancellor had informed parliament of the constitutional issues. The Prime Minister at the time had been Harold MacMillan (conservative) whose wartime ‘friend’ Charles de Gaulle had vetoed a British application in a televised interview. De Gaulle might have been affected by Winston Churchill’s wartime threat to have him executed, but doomed his own postwar presidency by choosing a referendum in preference to a general election on the calculated basis that he was more likely to win it. The French people voted NO to his plans for reform of the French Senate and De Gaulle resigned the presidency and retired from politics.
    Denmark had voted YES in a referendum and joined the EEC.
    Norway voted NO, narrowly, causing their Prime Minister to resign. She remained in international politics at the UN.
    When Sweden applied they were welcomed by a record high YES vote in the European parliament. Norway applied again at the same time, got another NO vote in a referendum. Their PM did not resign.
    Switzerland negotiated a relationship and asked their electorate for approval in seven simultaneous referendums. They voted YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, YES and YES. They also voted in a referendum to join the United Nations.

  • @ Mr Underhill “De Gaulle might have been affected by Winston Churchill’s wartime threat to have him executed”. Yes, indeed. If that really happened it might well have been, shall we say, a trifle off putting to General de Gaulle.

    But, it would be interesting to know what possible shred of evidence or historically respectable source you can produce for such an incredible statement.

  • Interesting to be reminded of the 5, June, 1975 EU Referendum, though I’m not sure whether Mr Underhill thinks Mr David Steel was the Liberal Party Leader. It was in fact a certain Jeremy Thorpe.

    What is often forgotten is that Prime Minister Harold Wilson called that Referendum to bridge a split in his own party.

    It is interesting to speculate that if the May government fell, as it might, and another Jeremy (C) was to become PM in the ensuing election – he decide to follow Mr Wilson’s precedent for the very same reasons.

    Have you thought this through yet Lib Dem MP’s should it be that Teresa & Co fall ?

    We might even get a newly ennobled Lord Lorenzo as Minister of Culture who could give himself an Arts Council grant.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Dec '17 - 2:49pm

    As one who has long favoured an alliance, but was thinking more, of pm Dan Jarvis, like your suggestion but please , it shall be

    Lord Cherin of Wimbledon Common!!!

  • Richard O'Neill 7th Dec '17 - 5:46pm

    I understand the spirit behind the argument but it is a bit of a ‘coat hanger’ for a rerun of the original vote. A ref on the deal would involve a straight yes/no choice (a no vote leading to a hard Brexit or perhaps, less likely, some renogation of the terms). This obviously isn’t the intent of the proposal which is to stop Brexit.

    This just plays into a perception that there is some underhand trickery about the demand. Calling it a second referendum just appears more solid and honest. It does what it says on the tin (Having been born many years after 1975 I can’t really consider that the 1st).

    Personally I’m not convinced there is anything especially new to vote on at the moment. If the EU were to make a dramatically increased offer for us to stay than they gave Cameron that would justify one. Otherwise a 2nd vote will likely be about rejoining at some future date.

    The complaint about the DUP seems wide of the mark. The power of small parties to dictate terms is an inevitable part of hung parliaments. PR which is advocated so often here garuntees almost perpetual hung parliaments.

  • Yes, I’d be happy with Dan the Man as PM …. or the great Stella Creasy or any of the other really talented women Labour MP’s (except, I’m afraid, for Diane). Watch out for Keir Starmer, if Jeremy C. decides he’s had enough of Number 10 and wants to go back to his jam and allotment after a couple of years.

    Yes, I do have a bit of time for the feisty compassionate Heidi and the equally feisty Anna Soubry. Very moved by Heidi’s response in the Commons yesterday – she’s in the wrong party.

    Tory MP Heidi Allen in tears during universal credit debate – BBC News
    Video for heidi allen in tears▶ 2:08…/tory-mp-heidi-allen-in-tears-during-universal-cr...
    2 days ago Conservative MP Heidi Allen was in tears after Labour’s Frank Field’s speech.

  • Richard Underhill 7th Dec '17 - 10:56pm
    The “Europals” was a newspaper headline and photo about a press conference by the YES campaign.
    David Steel commented on the money that the YES campaign had. When he had difficulty getting to a meeting they arranged to fly him.
    Shirley Williams admitted that the YES campaign had more money.

  • But would it just be advisory? The only way to be sure is to first hold a referendum on whether or not “the second referendum” should be binding or advisory and then hold a referendum on the terms of “the second referendum”. Then finally we could move on to “the second referendum”.

  • Paul Emmerson 8th Dec '17 - 12:50am

     You assume that another referendum would be “accept deal or stay in EU”, and it most likely would be. But there would be many people wanting it to be either “accept deal or continue negotiations” or “accept deal or no deal Brexit”.

    And you would also have to deal with the arguments against neverendums.

    I really think the best option is to push for a Norway solution that keeps close ties to the EU, but leaves it technically (thus respecting result).

    Has anyone on this blog read Adults in the Room by Yannis Varoufakis? Do you really want to stay part of an organisation that has such a malicious centralizing impulse in its very DNA?

  • “People can, at long last, compare and contrast the status quo on the one hand, with life post-Brexit on the other”.

    Unfortunately this may not be possible since with a transition period, we won’t have reached our Brexit destination when we actually leave the EU. The Brexiteers will still be painting the sunlit uplands ahead of us.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Dec '17 - 4:04pm

    David Raw 7th Dec ’17 – 2:23pm
    @ Mr Underhill “De Gaulle might have been affected by Winston Churchill’s wartime threat to have him executed”. Yes, indeed. If that really happened it might well have been, shall we say, a trifle off putting to General de Gaulle.
    There are no references to de Gaulle in the index of Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill.
    I have not seen Boris Johnson’s version.
    Please consider the context. In Mary Soames biography of Clementine Churchill, (ISBN 0385 607415) page 324: “General De Gaulle lunched at Downing Street. The conversation turned to the future of the French fleet, and Clementine said how ardently she hoped that many of its ships and crews would carry on the fight with us. To this the General curtly replied that, in his view, what would really give the French fleet satisfaction would be to turn their guns ‘on you!’ (meaning the British). Clementine from the first had liked and respected this dour man, but she found this remark too much to bear, and rounding on him, rebuked him, in her perfect, rather formal, French, for uttering words and sentiments that ill became either an ally or a guest in this country.” ” … there are certain things that a woman can say to a man which a man cannot say, and I am saying them to you — General de Gaulle!”

  • Richard Underhill 8th Dec '17 - 4:10pm

    Winston. S. Churchill’s command of the French language is covered in his own book The Second World War, volume two, Relations with Vichy and Spain, pages 404 et seq. He broadcast to occupied France in French, with some help.

  • @ Richard Underhill Winston Churchill (nor his wife) did not threaten to execute Charles de Gaulle – not even after a bad lunch in 10, Downing Street.

  • Execution apart, he kissed him on both cheeks.

    Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle reunion 14 years after WWII …
    Video for churchill de gaulle▶ 1:05

    PS. I wouldn’t take Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s biography of Churchill as serious history……. more a case of hurried fiction on manoeuvres with a bit of self serving impersonation.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Dec '17 - 2:16pm

    I like the idea of a first referendum. It reinforces my view that last year’s was illegitimate for a variety of reasons. It could give us some mileage explaining it.

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