What are we afraid of? Thoughts on the Second Referendum march in London

In the wake of that march in London for a second referendum, lots of people have said lots of things. I’ve heard lots of poor arguments about it from both sides. Here is my two penneth.

I am not of the view that now the referendum has been taken Remainers have no right to continue making their arguments. I believe in free speech and I recognise they have every right to hold the government (or any other) to account. A vote does not mean the losing side are never permitted to comment on that issue again. We have an official opposition in parliament after each general election to enshrine that very thing.

By the same token, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Remainers having a march. They are entitled to register their discontent over the matter. If we believe in free assembly and freedom to protest, we can’t find any problem in those who do not like the result of the EU referendum marching to make that known.

Where I do find a problem is when a march to register discontent becomes a basis to insist that the result of a democratic vote ought not to be enacted. For example, here is David Lammy on Twitter following the march:

The problem with this, of course, is that Lammy is (and has) insisted that 550,000 people marching for a second referendum ought to overturn the 17.4m people who voted to leave the EU in the first one.

This is particularly ironic coming from Blairites who do not exactly have a top track record in listening to marches, as this discussion with Alistair Campbell highlights:

The difference between the Iraq protest and the EU referendum march is that the decision to go to war in Iraq had not been put the people. The Iraq protest was the people making their views known that had not ever been put to the people. The EU referendum, by contrast, was a direct vote by the will of the people on the issue. To insist on a second referendum is to deny the will of the people that was sought in the first.

What Alistair Campbell is doing is showing his utter contempt for democracy and for the views of the people. When the people made their views clear about Iraq, having never been given a say on the matter, he happily rode roughshod over their views. Now the people have been asked their view on our EU membership in a referendum, Campbell wants to ride roughshod over their views again by actively ignoring it. We may point to the hypocrisy of Campbell and the government he served happily ignoring one march of c.1m people who had not been asked their views whilst expecting the government today to listen to 550,000 who have already had their voices heard in a referendum (and, be in no doubt, hypocrisy is what it is). But there is a consistency here – a consistent view that the views of the people are to be disregarded.

Others – including Campbell – have made the argument that they don’t particularly like referenda. That’s OK. I think there are lots of reasons not to like referenda. But it does ignore the massive elephant in the room: like it or not, we did have a referendum. We cannot argue that we are ‘seeking the will of the people’ because their will has already been sought. We cannot argue that because we don’t like referenda we should ignore it because all sides argued that the result would be the choice of the people. We can’t even argue that ours is a representative democracy so our representatives should make the choice because they made the choice, as our representatives, to abdicate their responsibilities on this issue and seek the will of the people directly in a referendum (that was their choice as our representatives).

The circle some are trying to square is the pretence that they respect democracy and the result of democratic votes whilst simultaneously working to overturn the result of a democratic vote by keeping us in the EU. To their credit, many who campaigned to remain are of the view that – though it is not what they wanted – they should respect the result of the referendum and extricate us from the EU and its mechanisms. But others insist on squaring the circle. Several arguments have been employed to try to make that sound credible.

Some ask what is undemocratic about seeking another referendum, after all, in a democracy we can change our minds. I have answered that specific point here. There is nothing wrong with seeking a second referendum of itself; there is something undemocratic about insisting we have one before the first decision has been enacted. It is the equivalent of insisting the Tories or Labour can’t form a government despite winning a general election and the vote must be re-run before they take office. But democracy insists that they can and should form a government and we have a right to change our minds 5-years later if we don’t like what they have done. We don’t insist on further votes before the initial vote has been enacted because that is to reject the expressed will of the people on the question at hand.

Others insist that we’ve had general elections closer together than the time between the first and (potential) second referendum on the EU. But that was (a) under the former dispensation in which the government could call an election whenever it wished during its 5-year term and (b) after the initial decision to allow those who won to form a government had been enacted. The length of time between referenda is not the issue at stake; it is not enacting the first decision before we ask the question again.

Others again ask, what are Leavers afraid of? If they are so convinced that the people still want to leave, why not have a second referendum? Leavers are afraid of ignoring a principle that all sides at least claim to believe is vital – democracy and the will of the people. How many referenda are we going to run before we actually enact a decision? Are we going to make it the best out of five after the fact and despite – as per the below video – all sides agreed to enact and abide by the decision of the first referendum.

Giles Fraser put it helpfully in an article this week:

If Remainers overturn the wishes of 17.4 million people, what is their plan for making the people of Walsall, for example, feel that their voices count? In recent weeks, such people have been derided as stupid, as racist, as not knowing what they voted for, as being misled. It is not any sort of threat to say that if the result of the referendum is overturned there will be a widespread turning against democracy. If Remainers win, the alienation will deepen and darken. Remain really do need a plan to deal with all of this. But what is it?

He avers:

Do they have a plan for addressing the desperate cry of not being listened to that bust out of the post-industrial towns of the north and the midlands, a cry to which Brexit gave voice? If they win 52:48, for instance, what will they have to say to those who have felt profoundly unattended to and whose voice – legitimately expressed during the first people’s vote two years ago – will have been overturned?

So the big questions that need to be addressed by those on the march are these:

  1. Why should a march of c. 550,000 people overturn the votes of 17.4m?
  2. How are we democratically respecting the will of the people by asking them to vote again before we have enacted their initial decision?
  3. What precedent have we got for re-running a vote on the grounds that the people have changed their mind before we enact the original decision?
  4. What will Remainers say to people in places like Walsall, or Oldham, who overwhelmingly voted to leave, who finally feel their voices have been heard, being told that their decision will not, in fact, be enacted?