What have we learned from both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 EU referendum? Referendums are extremely divisive by definition: they offer a binary proposition, after all. They serve to eliminate nuance (as those of us who campaigned for ‘remain and reform’ discovered in 2016). You are one or the other. A campaign is incentivised to stir up passions and emotions to win. Referendums are favoured tools of demagogues for a reason. Even though most people got on with their lives after each — politics is not all-consuming for most of us — both entrenched bitter political divisions and spurred on a lasting political realignment.
Both Brexit and the Scottish independence near-miss did not come out of nowhere: economic policies which have caused so much insecurity played a role in both. But while the Scottish vote triggered a dramatic realignment in favour of civic nationalism, nearly wiping out Labour as a major political force north of the Border, the EU referendum had a far more sinister consequence. The official Leave campaigns — note, not Leave voters, who had a myriad of reasons for voting as they did — made a strategic decision to combine anti-immigration and right-wing populist tropes to win. Racism and xenophobia clearly predated the referendum — Britain remains a systemically racist society — but the campaign gave bigotry renewed political legitimacy and respectability. UKIP collapsed in the aftermath, but at the cost of the UKIPification of the Conservative Party. The Jacob Rees Mogg faction is in the ascendancy. Out on the streets and online, a more extreme right-wing movement led by figureheads such as the thug and convicted fraudster “Tommy Robinson” grows stronger by the day.
My view is that a second referendum campaign would be far more poisonous and divisive than the first, and provide the radical right with a dramatic boost. For saying this, some anti-Brexit campaigners have compared me to Neville Chamberlain, that I’m saying do as Nazis want me to do. I think always bringing arguments back to the Nazis is really very tedious and unhelpful: the radical right populists we are up against are deeply reactionary, but they are not Nazis, even though there are some outright fascist types benefiting from our post-referendum political context. What I am saying is that the referendum would provide fertile political ground for the radical right to flourish, which is presumably why Nigel Farage has himself floated a second referendum: he knows a political lifeline when he sees one.
Public opinion shows that if you voted Remain or Leave, you overwhelmingly stick by your decision. Most Leave voters think Brexit is going badly, but they blame the government for mishandling it, not the principle of Brexit itself. There is a significant chunk of Remain voters who are resigned to the referendum result. To achieve a second referendum, a grassroots campaign would have to win a decisive stable majority in favour of one, which would mean convincing both Remain and Leave voters, shifting dramatically the Labour leadership’s position in the process, and do it by the time Parliament supposedly votes on a final deal later this year. This seems ambitious, to say, the least, but as a passionate believer in grassroots campaigning, I genuinely wish them all the best in their efforts. That will mean, in some cases, far more generosity and charm being extended to Remain voters who are resigned to the referendum result, let alone Leave voters.
But let’s just look at how a second referendum looks to millions of people. Leave voters think, hold on a minute, we’ve already had a vote on this, we gave you our answer, you’re just trying to re-run a vote until we give you the answer you agree with. Stop Brexit campaigners are framing a second referendum as a vote on a second deal, therefore a totally different proposition from the first referendum. The problem is most people just see this as an attempt to rebrand staying in the European Union, because the proponents of this argument obviously see a second referendum as a means to Remain. That will mean that a second referendum will be easily framed as an Establishment plot to thwart and subvert a national decision which was not taken very long ago at all. Labour MPs representing Leave constituencies already tell me that many of their voters say — ‘we’ve voted to Leave, why haven’t we left yet?’ — and talk of politicians constantly plotting to undermine and reverse their decision.
This inevitable framing of the second referendum would make the campaign far more poisonous and bitter than the first. That would be the cost: what would be the benefit? Would Britain automatically vote to Remain? And here I think there is every chance Brexit would win by a bigger margin, with an even greater reactionary triumphalism and contempt for the losing side than the last time round. The vast majority of Leave voters would feel resentful at having to vote again after having expressed what they see as a command to the political elite so recently, and would defiantly march to the polling booths. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush puts it, although there have been negative economic consequences (from wages to growth), the warnings of impending economic catastrophe which came from the official Remain campaign have not come to pass, and could not be deployed again without sounding like the politicians who cried wolf. While the Tories were divided and had a strong pro-Remain voice last time (including the Prime Minister and Chancellor) and Labour overwhelmingly backed Remain, this would not be the case next time round: Leave would have a much stronger political voice.
So, as I see it, there is every chance Brexit would win a stronger mandate, the campaign itself would not only reinvigorate respectable political xenophobia and racism, the campaign would easily be portrayed as an Establishment attempt to keep re-running votes until the public vote the right way, and the radical right would hugely benefit from such a political context.
“This is my truth, now tell me yours,” as Aneurin Bevan put it. Yes, if there was a second referendum, I would again vote and campaign for Remain. But I genuinely fear what the consequences of such a vote would be. That’s why I believe campaigning for the softest possible Brexit and a socialist government which deals with the injustices which helped deliver the referendum vote in the first place is the best possible course of action. You may disagree: fine. But surely if you wish to make the case for a second referendum, you surely have to have an answer to these arguments.