There are several accepted “truths” about what would happen if there was another referendum on Britain’s EU membership, pumped out by even the most Remainery of journalists and pundits. One, it would be more divisive and bitter than the first. Two, that it would lead to a rising of the far right the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Three, that Leave would win again, this time by a wide margin. Here’s the thing: none of those assumptions have any basis in fact whatsoever and in some instances aren’t even particularly salient guesses as to what might happen. They are based, as most truisms in Westminster are at all times, on an overreaction to a previous truism being proven incorrect. In other words, instead of realising that Westminster truisms are mostly hot air, pundits just reverse the last set of assumptions and turn them up to ten.
Let’s take each of these presumptions in turn. It is entirely possible that another EU referendum would be horrible. Yet given we are prepared for awful it might be at the start, we could all be relatively pleasantly surprised. To stress, I’m not making a prediction here that it would all be grown up and way less horrid than the truism predicts. I’m simply saying we don’t know. What if having a second referendum allows the country to have the necessary discussion about Brexit that then leads to some catharsis we were denied last time via a series of factors? It isn’t as far fetched as Westminster logic would have you believe.
Next, the idea that another referendum would lead to a rising of the far right. Again, could happen – of course it could. Then again, when you look at the lack of coordination on the far right, this is far from a sure shot. Also, it seems clear to me that one of the ways Leave won last time was by keeping the far right relatively contained. If they wanted to win again, that would be just as relevant. So, that means that if the far right rises, it could oddly lead to a greater Remain win.
Which brings me to the final, probably most erroneous assumption of the three: that Leave would definitely win again. This is based on the idea that Leave was always destined to win the 2016 referendum, and that anytime this question is asked to Britain, it will return the same answer. This is an unbelievably contentious claim, based on literally nothing at all. In fact, the opposite is true: one of the really surprising things about the 2016 referendum result was just how high the Remain numbers in central London and Scotland were. Or that Northern Ireland voted so decisively for Remain. True, it was also a shock how much of the north east of England or Wales vote to Leave, but that underlines my point: we really have no idea why people voted the way they did, and further, what three years of the government trying to implement Brexit and not getting very far, added to the fact that everyone has had to hear about all this crap for that period of times over and over and over again will influence the way they might vote in another EU referendum. Put it this way: a 70-30 result either way wouldn’t really surprise me very much.
We are in uncharted political waters. Yet we still think we can chart it, which is the funny and sad thing.
I agree. The claims that Brexit would win and the far right would be empowered are simply based either on deep pessimism, by anti-Brexiters, or extreme optimism by Brexiters.
The most obvious risk of a further referendum is low participation with many not wishing to be implicated any more in Brexit. The majority of these would likely be Brexiters who are largely apolitical and not very interested in politics.
The advantage of a referendum on how Brexit happens (or not at all) is that if the government were to go for a jobs lost, supply chains broken, depleted supermarket shelves Brexit, it would have some authority to do so. It would also make it easier for Nissan, BMW and other big employers to organise downsizing (or moving out altogether).
The point about the far right is a good one. What UKIP achieved in the run-up to the last referendum was to push the far-right buttons without appearing to be so extreme as to drive potential supporters away. It’s a fine line and, post-Farage they have stepped right over it. I doubt that quite so many people will be quite so comfortable being associated with the UKIP position if there is another referendum.