Any democracy can change its mind, but are extra referenda more democratic?

It will not have escaped your notice that many are continuing to call for a second EU referendum. For a long time, that suggestion was batted away as undemocratic and – for some while – there wasn’t much come back. We voted to leave, so trying to get people to keep voting until they vote to agree with the elites does, naturally, seem a bit undemocratic. It looks very much like people trying to frustrate the outcome of a referendum that simply didn’t go their way.

But then those calling for a second referendum landed on a clever rhetorical wheeze: how can it be undemocratic to offer the demos another say? Those who reject a second referendum are refusing the people a right to their say; it is they who are the undemocratic ones! The obvious answer that has been repeatedly thrown back is that the people have already been asked and so it smacks of elites telling them they were too stupid to make a proper decision and thus must vote again until they get it right.

But, the second referendum advocate fires back, any democracy can change its mind. We don’t bind successive governments to the decisions of former governments. In the same way, we can’t bind future electorates to the decision of today’s electorate. If the people have changed their mind, they have every right to do so and vote to change the result of the referendum to leave the EU.

It is, obviously, true that the electorate can’t bind the conscience of any future voters. The electorate can change its mind, that much is true. That is why, every five years, we have the opportunity to kick the governing party out of office and elect somebody else to run the country. Clearly we don’t think once Conservative or Labour are in, they are in for life. The vote was the vote after all. Have the remainers who wish to frustrate the result of the referendum got a point here? Have they got the democratic beating of those who voted for Brexit.

Not exactly. Whilst they are right that every electorate has the right to change its mind, it is worth saying that it is not appropriate to get it to change its mind before its initial decision has been enacted. We do not, for example, expect General Elections to be re-run before the elected government has even established a cabinet. Whilst we can change our minds and decide five years later that whoever we elected has not done as we expected, or failed to deliver what they promised, and throw them out of government, we are not within our rights to do that before they have even attempted to do as they promised.

In the same way, we were taken into the EU in 1973 with no vote of the UK membership. In 1975, under pressure from Labour, the people were given a vote and 67% of those who turned out to vote decided to continue in membership. The only vote thereafter on our membership of the EU was the one we have most recently taken around two years ago. We had 43 years of ever closer union, a long enough test by anyone’s reckoning, and the electorate, in line with the views of the remainers seeking a second referendum, changed their minds as they are democratically entitled to do.

What those seeking a second referendum a mere two years after our most recent referendum are trying to insist – following 43 years of total silence on the issue as far as referenda are concerned – is that we should change our minds before the most recent decision has been enacted. That is the equivalent of suggesting that a vote for the Labour Party at the General Election must be overturned before they form a government because, in the view of those who vote Conservative, it is the wrong decision and the country are entitled to change their minds. Most people – even those who would prefer a Conservative government – would surely concede that is undemocratic. Indeed, it is anti-democratic.

It may well be, in 5 or 10 years time, the electorate change their mind on this issue. If they do so, run another referendum (such as that is how you want to approach the issue) and see if they have changed. They are, after all, entitled to see the fruit of the decision they have taken and then determine whether it is something with which they wish to plough on. There is nothing undemocratic about changing one’s mind. What is undemocratic is insisting we vote again before you have even enacted the decision that had already been taken.

As I argued here – and Giles Fraser powerfully argued here – there were some important principles at stake in the Brexit vote. Many, especially those of us politically on the left, were voting on some important principles. Money and the economy were simply not our main concern. Democratic principles were at the heart of our reason to leave and this needs to be understood when those asking for a second referendum receive such pushback. As much as we voted to leave on democratic principles, we want the referendum result to be upheld according to those same principles. Anything less would be an astronomical sell out.

Do I think the electorate has every right to change its mind? Of course it does. In fact, it did when it voted to leave the EU. Do I think we should run the EU referendum before we have left the EU on the grounds that folk can change their mind? No. Because you can’t deny a decision already taken before it has been enacted.

If you want to re-run the referendum to see if people are happy with their decision, do it in another 43 years time – the precedent set by the last one. It may be that people are desperate to jump back in the boat, having seen the fruit of our most recent decision. They will have every right to make that choice known if it is put to them in a referendum.

But those advocating for a second-referendum aren’t happy with that because, for them, it is the ‘wrong’ decision. What is more, it is a decision that, once taken, is unlikely to be reversed on the same terms. Of course, the fortunes of the EU in 43 years time may be somewhat different. Others may follow in the steps of the UK and the thing may be no more. Italy and Ireland have certainly made it clear they would prefer to leave, Greece have struggled and it is not universally loved elsewhere. It is very hard to know where it will be in due course. The reason they want a second-referendum is because, in their view, leaving is the ‘wrong’ decision. The bottom line is they didn’t like the result and they are grasping at any reason not to enact the decision taken.

Arguing that it is more democratic to grant another referendum is a rhetorical line that even its advocates don’t really believe. They wouldn’t apply that logic to a General Election but rightly recognise that the initial decision must be enacted (granting a party five years to introduce their policies) before we make another judgement on them. To do otherwise, all recognise, is anti-democratic. In the same way, the decision taken in the referendum was to leave the EU. Whilst the electorate may change their mind, it is anti-democratic to seek their opinion on the matter before their initial decision had been enacted.

By all means seek a second referendum. But do it after the initial decision has been implemented. If we waited 43 years to make this decision, it seems premature to expect us to overturn it after two, before it has been enacted. Only those without any will to see would call that more democratic.