Not Wong: A Second Referendum

This week's Not Wong constructs the principled case for a rerun of the European referendum, asking the question of whether truly democratic decisions can be made by uninformed electorates.

Photo: PxHere

Disclaimer: Having a second EU referendum is an awful idea. It would empower extremist Euro-sceptics and populists, revitalise UKIP and encourage more aggressive campaigning from both “Remain” and “Leave” camps. This article therefore does not call for another referendum – it merely presents a principled case for it on the basis of the concept of autonomy that underpins representative democracy. The crucial idea here is that the people’s choice is only legitimate when it:

  1. Reflects their true preferences, and:
  2. Does not imposing an unreasonable constraint upon non-consenting individuals.

I believe that the results of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 violated both, for three reasons. First, the binding direct-democratic principle requires that individual voters be reasonably informed about the consequences that would follow their decision-making. There are three reasons why voters need to be informed for democratic decision making:

  1. For people to collectively self-determine they must be in command of relevant and important facts (cf. Rousseau)
  2. It is unfair for preferences based on erroneous evidence to crowd out those underpinned by stronger reasons (cf. Rawls)
  3. A choice made under imperfect circumstances is not valid (e.g. buying a rotten apple that appears to be perfectly edible).

Given the role of referenda in accurately capturing the will of the public it should be clear that, given the procedural injustice of the first referendum, a second  is morally obligatory. It should be noted that not all Brexit voters were misinformed. I have friends who voted Brexit for values and beliefs with which I disagree – but fundamentally respect. But we need also acknowledge that the “Leave” campaign actively deceived its supporters. Take the lie that £350m would be diverted to the NHS after Brexit, scaremongering about Turkish accession to the union and refugees, or the assertion that we could continue to access the single market without freedom of movement, despite this being repeatedly denied by the EU. Equally, the referendum vote never established which version of Brexit would occur.

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Secondly, individuals may be fully informed of the relevant facts, but have formulated the wrong second-order desires to satisfy their fundamental, first-order desires. Suppose I am a Brexit voter, and hold the first-order preference for economic security. Since 23 June 2016, the collapse of the pound, the withdrawal of future potential trade deals, the massive relocation of banks etc. –  all reveal that the consequences of my vote have run contrary to my most fundamental desires. Thus, from a purely preference-based point of view, a second referendum is needed.

Thirdly there is the issue of  inter generational justice. The decision to trigger Article 50 – unlike most democratic decisions – is hardly reversible. Hannan and Johnson’s claims that we could “rejoin anytime we like” is comparable to a dinner guest smashing all the dishes and wine glasses as he leaves his host’s house, and then insisting he will be welcomed back with open arms: total nonsense. Democracy requires that we are accountable to future generations – both people who were too young to vote in the referendum, and those who will be born into a poorer, more xenophobic Britain. Given the under-representation of these individuals during the campaigning period, a second referendum is demanded by the obligations we owe them.

Three objections immediately come to mind. The first is the “No Perfect Vote” objection, that every election inherently involves imperfect information, but this does not (and should not) prevent us from accepting electoral results in general. The main response to this objection is that deception and misinformation come in degrees. There is a significant (and legally recognised) difference between contracts formed based on imperfect information (i.e. all contracts) and deliberately deceptive contracts that jeopardise one of the party’s core interests.

Secondly, there is the Irrelevance objection. It is unclear that the lies propagated by the Leave campaign actually swayed that many voters. Similarly, it is unclear that having a second referendum would change the result. The key response to this argument is that the moral legitimacy of a democratic conclusion depends not only on its ability to reflect the popular will, but also the procedures that generated that will. The reason why we protest elections in authoritarian  regimes even when they have, in practice, overwhelming majoritarian support – is that their elections violate underlying principles of democratic fairness.

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Thirdly, it seems patronising and demeaning to posit that all Brexit voters were uninformed – surely it is all the more important to recognise the voice of the people, especially given how populist sentiments have only been encouraged by paternalistic Westminster government? The first response to this is to note is that, for the case for a second referendum to stand, there is no onus upon this article to prove that everyone is uninformed, but rather that there exists a significant number of individuals who were misinformed. It is not patronising to call out misinformed voters; it is only patronising when the claim becomes generalised. Indeed it is all the more patronising to insist that people could not change their minds after coming around to realising their past flaws. Binding individuals to outcomes they now no longer consent to is not only demeaning, but undemocratic.

Therefore, although I neither believe that a second referendum will be held, nor pragmatically desire one, a principled case can be made for Britain to return to the European ballot box once more.