Why I’m gambling on a second referendum

I’m not a gambling man, but a few months ago I placed a bet for the first time in my life. It was that Emmanuel Macron would win the French election.  It was an expression of hope, which paid off.

Today I am betting on the success of a second referendum on Europe – either staying in the EU or re-joining it, preferably the former. My hope is that the dice will roll in our favour and the people will get it right next time round.

Not that I’m any great fan of referendums, as readers of my previous posts will know. Much can be done to soften the blow without invoking another one. But to reverse the earlier result and stay a member of the EU is likely to require the voice of the people again.

How acceptable will that be to Brenda from Bristol? Well, the snap election was waved through without hesitation despite arguments to the contrary. It is in fact quite difficult to argue against putting things to the people.

The tide is turning

Last week, on the first anniversary of the Brexit vote. I wrote a piece for my local newspaper arguing that Brexit was a clear mistake and the country can still change its mind. I was pitted against TV presenter Quentin Willson, who argued the opposite with all the force and eloquence he is noted for, saying we must turn our backs on selfish Brussels.

But there was a distinct change in tone. Gone was the brash confidence in the sunny uplands that await us once liberated from the shackles of the EU. In its place, a plaintive resentment that we will be denied the utopia that is rightfully ours. The Brexiters are on the back foot, and the only thing that keeps their juggernaut rolling is a sort of fatalistic compulsion that we have to go through with it, or as Magnus Magnusson would say “I’ve started so I’ll finish”.

I do not believe there will be any cataclysmic event to prompt an emergency reversal. We are not going to fall off any cliff. Life for most Britons will go on from day to day, our gradual decline as a country will be most apparent to those standing outside Britain.

What, then, can motivate a change of heart?  For an answer, look to Emmanuel Macron. His passion for a united Europe has powered his meteoric rise. Under his proposed reforms the EU will become closer to the people. One envisages EU studies in schools, cultural exchanges, sporting sponsorship.

Rennaisance of the EU

Quentin Willson described the present European Commission as “ a huge plate-glass factory where thousands of self interested officials and well paid bureaucrats dispense daily flannel”.  Unkind, but he has a point. If the EU had been less remote, Ebbw Vale in South Wales, which had benefited hugely from EU investment, would not have voted to leave.

But that is past history, and Europe is on the up and up. Britain can be part of this renaissance. Richard Dawkins has even suggested that the Liberal Democrats should rename themselves the European Party, leaving behind all the heavy baggage of the coalition and tuition fees with the old name, emerging like a butterfly from its chrysalis.

Second time lucky

The point is that we need to be offering hope, not dwelling on past failure. It may look far away at the moment, but so did Macron’s presidency when I bet on it. So that’s why I’m gambling on another referendum on Europe, no matter how long it takes, and keeping my fingers crossed that we will be second time lucky.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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  • Phil Beesley 26th Jun '17 - 5:39pm

    I suppose I am a different sort of liberal. Emmanuel Macron always looked like a nomark to me. Always check references.

    Rennaisance of the EU: ‘Quentin Willson (sic) described the present European Commission as “ a huge plate-glass factory where thousands of self interested officials and well paid bureaucrats dispense daily flannel”.’

    Or maybe that is too eloquent for Wilson.

  • Joseph Bourke 26th Jun '17 - 5:41pm


    I think gambling is an appropriate metaphor here. Polls seem to indicate that there is only slight fluctuations up and down from the position reached last year http://whatukthinks.org/eu/questions/in-highsight-do-you-think-britain-was-right-or-wrong-to-vote-to-leave-the-eu/

    A second referendum endorsing an exit from the EU will leave no way back and make the gradual decline you speak of inevitable. Is this a gamble worth taking?

    As the political historian Vernon Bogdanor wrote https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/02/article-50-trade-eu-deals-globalisation

    “the irony is that, contrary to the hopes of many Brexiteers, leaving the EU will expose Britain to more globalisation, not less; and in a more competitive and harsher world it will be the “left behind”, those most likely to have voted for Brexit, who will suffer the most.

    Brexit, therefore, will be Margaret Thatcher’s revenge. It will suit the vision of the Tory right, which hopes that outside the EU Britain could become like Hong Kong or Singapore, a global trading hub.”

    It may well be that only a referendum can legitimately reverse the process now, but the same referendum can also settle the issue in favour of Brexit.

    Perhaps a more nuanced approach is called for e.g. campaigning to remain in the EU with agreed limits on the free movement of labour (the so called emergency brake procedures) to allow for absorption of high levels of migration.

  • Frances Alexander 26th Jun '17 - 6:00pm

    I too am one of the oldies that firmly believe our way forward needs to be in Europe, for the sake of our children. All the good things we are throwing out of the window – for what? We have upset so many NHS employees that our hospital service is under threat. Our universities are losing staff. Business will be hard hit.
    I quite like The European Party – or perhaps, European Liberals. The trouble is, we Liberal Democrats need a leader who can “do a Macron” and inspire: give us the vision of a Europe – united world leaders. We have never had a Prime Minister who has been a leader in Europe. We have always been snivelling at the edges following, rather than creating a vision of Europe, the cradle of civilisation and still leading it.

  • I think there will be a second referendum for a number of possible reasons:

    1 – Parliament won’t be able to secure enough votes for a hard Brexit or even a soft Brexit when trying to steer various acts like the ‘great’ repeal bill through parliament. To rectify this politicians may well decide to call a referendum and ask people if they want a hard or soft Brexit or to stay as is.
    2 – People will tire of Brexit. As the NHS crumbles through neglect citizens will rightly ask – is it worth it?
    3 – The economy. Business is not really doing anything about Brexit because they don’t know what sort of Brexit to plan for. So investments aren’t being made. Meanwhile the BOE is struggling to decide what will damage the economy less, putting up interest rates or lowering them…. stagnation may well leat Brits to demand economic growth ahead of Brexit.
    4 – Maybe we will leave but then how long will we have to wait before people start saying that the last referendum wasn’t clear and that there should be a second (or is that a third?) referendum.

  • Yes I think point 2 is an especially good one, Christian. Brexit is a fad, an eccentric idea based on pure fantasy. It was previously confined to a few fanatics, until the genie was let out of the bottle. Like all fads though, it will run out of steam.

  • Arnold Kiel 26th Jun '17 - 8:59pm


    I agree: not only has the domino-effect Farage had hoped for not materialized; to the contrary, Macron is the attractive fresh face of a to be hoped-for EU-renaissance.

    I am much more hopeful now about a sane end of Britain’s flirt with Brexit, but thinking about another referendum fills me with horror.

    Just imagine another leave-campaign… what will they come up with next time? And consider the reaction of a desperate leave-minority, in their conviction of being robbed of their legitimate victory from June 2016, led into their final battle by Farage et. al. Remember Jo Cox. This ugly spectacle would happen before the eyes of the entire European public (anyhow wondering what is going on here) who the UK is asking to keep the door open until after this referendum and an unavoidably vitriolic campaign. After all, we need them to be convinced that this will be final and the UK will be a reliable partner afterwards. Please, no! But if there is no other way, so be it.

  • Little Jackie Paper 26th Jun '17 - 9:41pm

    There are three problems with a second referendum and I don’t see from the article how you get around any of them.

    1 – Whether you like it or not a bit impulse for the outcome in June 2016 was the sense (fair or not) that the political classes both in the UK and the EU stick two fingers up at the voters. Calling another referendum would seem to me to reinforce the point admirably.

    2 – More serious is that all referendum 2 would do is lead straight to referendum 3, 4 and so on.

    3 – It is hard to avoid the feeling that had the result been 52:48 you wouldn’t be all that keen on a second vote just to make sure it’s what the voters wanted.

  • Little Jackie Paper 26th Jun '17 - 10:22pm

    Frances Alexander – ‘We have always been snivelling at the edges following, rather than creating a vision of Europe’

    The UK was one of the very few countries to open up in full on day one to the A8 countries. The UK has also been a major net contributor for many years. Neither of which can be said for many of the states currently handing out lectures on the European Ideal.

    The EU is a deeply unlovely place and to read some of these comments one would think that 48% of the country woke up in June 2016, belted out Ode to Joy, kissed an icon of Juncker and full-heartedly voted remain. It didn’t. Plenty of remainers gritted their teeth and some remainers would do very well to reconcile to that.

  • There may be no other way, Arnold, but it could be that Nigel Farage would go the way of Marine Le Pen in a second contest. As Frances Alexander says, the Lib Dems reborn as the European Liberals might work. Or the European Democrats, U-Dems for short whose mission is a U turn on Brexit.

    Well, maybe not, but Macron’s feat was that the magnetism of En Marche drew in people from the other main parties. We need someone with a similar charisma, then we will be On the March. It needn’t be someone youthful necessarily, older people have a charisma even greater in some cases, Churchill being one of many examples.

  • Mark Goodrich 27th Jun '17 - 3:00am

    @Little Jackie Paper

    Let me try to answer your points:

    1. I don’t agree entirely with your premise. I think it was more voters taking the opportunity to stick two fingers up at the political class which they felt ignored them. This dynamic is more susceptible to change than the one you describe. In any event, there will not be a second referendum unless opinion has turned fairly clearly against Brexit (because that’s the only way the HoC would vote to have one).

    2. For the reasons in point 1, I don’t think this follows. Either Leave wins again and that really is the end of it or Remain wins and it is also the end of it for some while. Whoever wins, it is inevitable that similar questions will come up again but it could well be decades before it is put again.

    3. No but others would have been. Farage famously described that scenario as “unfinished business”. As it happens, I think Brexit demands would have melted away like Scottish independence but we will never know. In any event, the two things are not comparable – the main gripe that I have with the referendum is that the Leave campaign was systematically dishonest about the figures and our ability to have our cake and eat it. A dishonesty which largely continued with Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech but will unravel during negotiations. Any deal (and no deal is a deal just the same) will involve compromises which will upset some part of the Brexit coalition.

    Here is a non-partisan look at the issue:


    In reality, any deal will be very close to one of these. If the public decide that is better that being in the EU, then there can be no complaints.

  • Mark Goodrich 27th Jun '17 - 3:15am

    Two final points on this topic:

    1. Again, I entirely accept Little Jackie Paper’s assessment that many were grudging Remainers. There is loads I really dislike about the EU but that doesn’t mean I am relaxed about us leaving. I think it is going to be a disaster – in my view, all the other options are significantly worse; are likely to leave us worse off and will definitely diminish our influence in the world (this is already happening).

    2. I have come to the conclusion that the Lib Dems would be much better campaigning on other things – a new deal for youth springs to mind. We have the risk that we are becoming a sort of “reverse UKIP” party where every question gets turned round into Brexit. I also don’t think we are changing many people’s minds. What is having an effect is what John King mentions in this article above – the crumbling of the Brexiteers’ beliefs that there is a pot of gold at the end of EU membership. I expect that to speed up if negotiations carry on in their current vein. We should just let them keep digging for a while.

  • J George SMID 27th Jun '17 - 4:51pm

    1. Please do not call it second referendum. Call it ratification referendum (on the results) or, if you have to assign a number it will be third referendum. (First we got in, Second we voted out). I think Tim Farron call for ‘second referendum’ was one of the reasons for our abysmal GE performance. He changed it later to ‘referendum on results of the negotiations’ but the ‘second referendum’ stuck – and alienated both, Leavers and Remainers.
    2. What would be the question? Do you want to remain? Do you want to return? Do you want to change your mind? Do you like the result of the negotiations? If you don’t like the results do you still want to leave? If you don’t like the results do you want to go back? (Even if the conditions of the return change)
    3. I agree we need a charismatic leader but we also need a charismatic message. European Liberals might not do it – talk to Norman Lamb how difficult it was to fight in his predominantly Leave constituency with LibDem simplistic ‘2nd referendum’ message
    4. Whilst most of the EU nations see future development positively, everything is relative. Guy Verhostadt already mentioned that the door is open but re-entry will be without rebates, without opting out, with signing up to Euro … How do you sell that?

  • Hi Jayne, I’m glad someone still reads my old posts. Never fear, I haven’t got round to putting any hard cash down on this issue yet, unlike with Macron. If I do, I’ll bear your warning in mind.

  • Thanks for that very positive and heartening view, Mr Solheim. It accords also with that of A.C. Grayling, expressed on his website. One of the main problems holding things back is the strident clamour of the Brexit press, who are unlikely to be in favour of a calm examination of the alternatives, and their dominance in the UK is one of the reasons for Brexit. However, we will see what happens.

  • Just over three months have passed since my previous posting, in which I predicted:

    “It’s hard to judge, but it seems to me that, by Christmas, the UK’s negotiations expectations and tactics will likely be publicly and humiliatingly wrecked, prompting an examination of alternatives in the media. ”

    To me it looks like the UK is on track and schedule for that. I realise that remains a minority view.

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