Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Second ReferendumWhy Britain Should Decide the Fate of ‘Brexit’ by the People

By Aidan Denver-MoorePublished April 30, 2019

This image from Huffington Post UK by Ian Forsyth shows an anti-'Brexit' rally in the United Kingdom.
After years of deliberation, the outcome for 'Brexit' is still undecided as Parliament has failed to pass a resolution. As citizens grow frustrated with their government, it may be time to consider a second referendum.

     The United Kingdom should push for another referendum, as movement for ‘Brexit’ continues to flounder. For three years, the majority parties have failed to reach a resolution, leading to destabilizing economic and political volatility. This infuriating process has gone on for long enough; it is time to reconsider the public’s opinion.

     On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to secede from the European Union with a narrow majority of 52% of voters selecting leave compared to 48% choosing to remain. The withdrawal proved to be momentous, as it requires the United Kingdom to reconfigure its economic and immigration policies. Unsurprisingly, members of Parliament have found this issue to be incredibly contentious and the House of Commons has repeatedly failed to pass a resolution that is acceptable to all parties involved.

     On April 10, 2019, the leaders of the European Union agreed to allow the United Kingdom to postpone ‘Brexit’ until October 31, 2019 The extension intended to allow the UK to create a solution that is agreeable for all of the parties involved. However, the delay harms Prime Minister Theresa May’s political agenda as she promised to fully secede from the European Union by June 30, 2019. If the United Kingdom does not create a deal by her deadline, it will not only be branded a major political failure, but also mean that the UK will have to send delegates to the European Union until a deal is made. Theresa May is a member of the Conservative Party, which is divided by devoted pro-’Brexit’ supporters and representatives who voted to remain. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP, is one of the most vocal opponents to Theresa May and claims that the United Kingdom will not benefit by leaving the European Union, and will ultimately end up paying for it when the UK is forced to give approximately $50.7 billion dollars to the EU. This sentiment is shared by many Conservative representatives and they have repeatedly repeatedly threatened May with votes of no-confidence. With her party is so divided between hardliners and opposition against her, May has struggled to garner the support to pass a successful resolution regarding ‘Brexit’.

     UK citizens have become increasingly frustrated with Parliament, as they have waited for a long period of time to find out if  ‘Brexit’ will occur or not. Insecurity is spreading throughout the country, since citizens are unsure about their economic and political future. As representatives struggle to compromise over a deal, voters are beginning to realize the implications of their vote to leave the European Union. The economy is unstable as the future is unknown. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, warns that fully seceding from the European Union will lead to an economic shock reminiscent of the 1970s. Additionally, with the friction instilled by ‘Brexit’ trade and migration have lessened at the United Kingdom’s borders and there has been an estimated loss of 100 billion pounds a year from UK output.

     Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and People’s Vote advocate, argues that the standstill over ‘Brexit’ is harming citizens’ perceptions of their leaders, and indicates that the nation sees Theresa May as weak because her initiatives have failed repeatedly. Campbell notes that people have taken to the streets to protest the current government and believes these demonstrations show that they deserve a chance for a second referendum. Jess Philips, Labour Party MP for Birmingham Yardley, also agrees in an Op-Ed for The Guardian that a second referendum would be the best policy given Parliament’s indecision. She worries that voters might not have been aware of the economic and political consequences of the 2016 ‘Brexit’ vote, and states that many of her constituents have changed their opinions regarding the referendum. In Philips’ opinion holding a second referendum would be the most democratic option because many voters were not prepared for the political turmoil after they voted and they deserve a second chance to determine whether or not secession is what they actually want.

    Statistical polling is also indicative that United Kingdom citizens’ opinions have shifted since 2016. The British Social Attitudes Survey found that 55% of UK citizens would vote to “remain” currently, significantly higher than the 48% that voted to remain in 2016. This polling data demonstrates that ‘Brexit’ may no longer be the will of the people, after citizens have witnessed the economic consequences of the referendum. The statisticians that conducted this survey warn that their data may not be significant enough to predict the outcome of a second referendum, but underscore that the shift in polling demonstrates that there is a very real chance that a second ‘Brexit’ might have a different outcome. The uncertainty around ‘Brexit’ has many citizens worried about the fate of the country and has changed their opinions about whether leaving will actually be beneficial.  

    After almost three years of debate and contention, the United Kingdom populace has had time to consider the full implications of leaving the European Union. Research indicates that many have shifted their opinions. While the working class deserve to have their political opinions reflected in government, the majority of the population also deserves a right to decide the fate of their country in the European Union. Dissenters argue that having a second referendum will undermine the working class and send a message that their political values are less important than those of the “political class”. While this is a valid consideration, the working class opinion regarding ‘Brexit’ may have also shifted as Parliament has struggled more than expected to find a suitable resolution. By rejecting ignoring the results of the original vote, Chris Brickerton, a Politics professor at Cambridge University, argues that Parliament will be ignoring democracy in the United Kingdom. He also argues that because legislation has been created surrounding ‘Brexit’ since the last referendum and election, it will uproot the fundamental relationship between the executive and legislative branches within the country. Brickerton also implies that people will not have changed their opinions since 2016, despite the indecision of Parliament and the vote will be effectively a waste of governmental resources.

     While certain members of the Conservative Party, like Brickerton, have a solid argument regarding maintaining the original referendum, members of Parliament should consider how the instability of the government is affecting their constituents and allow for them to reaffirm their votes. It is possible that the majority will still choose to “leave”, in which case they should create a plan to leave the European Union swiftly. But, it is also legitimate if the public has changed its opinion and chooses to remain.