Two years on from the EU referendum, British politics is more divided than it has been for decades. Both the Conservatives and Labour are divided into distinct factions; resignations are commonplace; arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage is back on the campaign trail; and there are rumours that a new centrist political party is being set up. To further complicate matters, support for a second referendum appears to be growing.
Ultimately, cause of the division currently dominating the political landscape is the ambiguity of the 2016 referendum. The ballot paper over-simplified the process by which the UK might leave the EU; no reference was made to a hard or soft Brexit, single market, customs union, Irish border or free movement. This ambiguity even continued after the decision to leave was made: the new Prime Minister’s favourite soundbite was “Brexit means Brexit” – a clever way to avoid making any attempt to define what Brexit might actually entail.
With the political definition of Brexit seemingly open to interpretation, it’s no surprise that the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU remains highly unpredictable. Brexiteers remain hopeful of a hard Brexit, just as Remainers are banking on soft.
The first referendum had a deeply divisive impact. Nevertheless, the campaign led by a group known as People’s Vote, who are demanding a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, is gathering momentum. People’s Vote recently received a £1 million-donation from Julian Dunkerton, co-founder of fashion label Superdry who believes that the European Union has been central to his company’s success. The campaign for a second referendum has been further supported by a large number of MPs from across the political spectrum, including Chuka Umunna (leader of People’s Vote), Justine Greening and Vince Cable. A second referendum has been advertised by the People’s Vote campaign as a solution to ending the great divide in British politics.
A second referendum would result in one of two possible scenarios.
The first and most simple scenario is that the electorate would vote to support the government’s deal. A Brexiteer coup de grâce that would surely put the debate to bed. The second and far more complex scenario would be a ‘no’ vote. That is, a rejection of the government’s Brexit deal. The outcome would be yet more political turmoil. Theresa May would surely resign, leaving the equally divided opposition party to attempt to form a new deal. The European Union would have no obligation, however, to even agree to a new round of negotiations, and could leave the UK with no deal: a Remainer’s worst nightmare.
The type of second referendum suggested by the People’s Vote campaign would not provide a viable long-term solution. If a hard Brexit deal was to be voted down by Remainers, then Brexiteers would just as likely block a soft Brexit in the third referendum that would surely follow. A second referendum would fail to draw a line under the Brexit issue, and could instead begin an endless to and fro with referendum after referendum.
The only way in which a second referendum could give Brexit any definitive direction is if voters were able to have their say on each individual aspect of the deal. A referendum of this nature would be time consuming and costly, and surely bring to an end any hope of productive negotiation with the EU.
The best solution is to return our faith to parliamentary democracy and entrust our elected MPs and government to set out a deal. Both Brexiteer and Remainer factions in parliament must reach a compromise and not call for a new referendum every time they don’t get their own way. While the failure of the Prime Minister’s Chequers meeting has demonstrated the difficulty of forming a consensus, some kind of compromise must eventually emerge from the division and debate.
The authority of parliamentary democracy should never have been compromised to settle the issue in the first place. The complexity of Britain’s relationship with the EU far exceeds a simple yes/no vote; a significant grey area exists between being ‘in’ and ‘out’ of Europe. MPs are elected by the people to represent their interests and if they fail to achieve this they should be voted out come the next election. Perhaps Britain should return to this long-established system rather than undermine it with a future of endless referendums.