Why a second Brexit referendum makes no sense

04/02/2018 by


Besides the gross disrespect to those who voted in favour of Brexit (instructing them to go back to the polling stations to deliver what we think is the ‘right’ verdict), the call for a second referendum is fraught with logical incoherence.

Any referendum, courtesy of being a binary Yes or No choice, must be clear on what the default is (which will obtain or hold in case the people vote No). Suppose now that, just before March 2019, the government comes back from Brussels with a draft Deal and puts it to a referendum. If voters vote Yes, end of story. But what if they vote No? What happens then? What is the default? One possibility is that a No vote translates into the UK government rescinding the Article 50 process in order to stay in the EU. A violently different possibility is that Britain exits the EU with no deal. Which of the two defaults obtains? By the logic of those supporting a second referendum, another referendum should precede the second referendum, in which voters are asked to choose between the two defaults – thus turning the second referendum into the… third referendum. One only needs to state this to realise the absurdity of the second referendum proposal.

But, let’s take this a little further: Suppose that, somehow, it is decided that a hard Brexit is the default of any second referendum. In that case, it is clear that most Remainers would vote Yes to the Brexit Deal brought back from Brussels by the government for the simple reason that it could not be as bad as the hardest of Brexits. Now, if the default of a second referendum was to Remain, then Brussels would suddenly have a powerful incentive to offer London a ludicrously bad Deal – safe in the knowledge that the British voters would reject it at the second referendum. In short, whichever the default, a second referendum to annul – or to confirm – Brexit is pointless.

This is one of four short articles extracted from the debate that followed this meeting at the House of Commons, in which I presented the left-wing case for a Norway Plus Brexit agreement. To read/listen to that presentation, click here.

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