How many referendums does it take, anyway?

Sorry, folks, but it just doesn’t work that way: not in Italy, not in the UK, not in any part of the democratic world. Democracy does not exist just to vindicate one set of prejudices, and delegitimise all others

To settle an issue like Brexit, for instance. Remember how, almost exactly a year and a half ago, a majority of UK citizens voted to leave the EU in a referendum? Well, there is now talk of holding a ‘second referendum’... that is to say, asking the same question, about the same issue, to the same people, barely 18 months after they already answered it... which I suppose, in itself, is not even all that unusual.

Let’s be fair. If something can happen once, with very few exceptions – ‘Armageddon’ being the only one that springs to mind right now – it can happen twice. By definition, a referendum cannot be a unique, one-off event. The mechanisms that allow one referendum to be held one day, will still be in place to permit the same exercise to be repeated... in theory, any number of times.

There may be little niceties written into the law, along the lines that a period of time – say, 10 or 20 years – may have to elapse before the exercise may be repeated. Then again, there may not (there are no such provisos in Maltese law, and it looks like the same for Britain). But whatever the exact regulations, the underlying principle is surely beyond dispute. If a nation is free to take a decision today, that nation must also be free to retake the same decision at some other time. Otherwise, one single generation could simply (and irreversibly) decide the future of an entire country for all its inhabitants, forever... and that, in a nutshell, would defeat the very purpose of such things as ‘referendums’ in the first place.

(Small note: I’m sticking to the Dictionary definition for the plural of ‘referendum’. I always thought it was ‘referenda’ myself, but apparently I was always wrong).

So far, so good.  But what makes this ‘second referendum’ idea somewhat inexplicable – in the Brexit scenario, but in others too – is that it is being floated by people who actually want a different result. People who voted ‘Yes’, and who would much rather Britain remained in the EU. People like former British PM John Major, who has just urged the House of Commons to clear the way for a second vote to be taken.

And of course, they’re very persuasive. Listen to their arguments today, and you might even get the impression that there has been some kind of ‘grand national’ re-wiring of British public opinion since June 2016. The last referendum? Oh, that was just a blip. We all took a collective blow to our heads... but we’ve gotten over it now. It won’t happen again. This next referendum? This one will be different ... this one’s going to be the real thing. Trust me...

OK (deep breath), let’s try and come to grips with the sheer enormity of this mass delusion, shall we? Before even getting to the truly obvious flaw in that reasoning – i.e., there is no reason under the sun to presume a second Brexit referendum will do anything but reaffirm the first result... possibly with an even larger majority – there’s the small matter of chronological consistency.

Let us, for argument’s sake, close an eye at the possible outcome for now, and instead concentrate on the democratic exercise in itself. What’s the difference between a ‘first’ and a ‘second’ referendum on the same issue?  Unless you count the possibility of a different result... which we’ve already agreed to overlook... not a very great deal. The legal framework underpinning both is identical. The value of the exercise, as a means of taking a decision on a national scale, remains the same in either case. As it stands, the only thing that makes a ‘second referendum’ in any way ‘different’ from the first, is that one would have been held at a later stage than the other.

So: if one set of voters (the ‘Bremainers’, in this case) are unhappy enough about the original result to demand a repeat of the same exercise... what’s to stop the ‘Brexiteers’ from reacting exactly in the same way to the second result? Or to ask same question differently: if the result of the first referendum wasn’t enough to settle the issue... why should the second referendum be any different? How many referendums will it have to take, for the resulting decision to be considered ‘final’? Best out of three? Best out of five? Best out of 100 million?

At this point, it becomes more or less impossible to continue ignoring the possible outcome, like we agreed to. The above scenario is rooted in the presumption that the British people would indeed vote differently this time round. It’s almost as though it’s a foregone conclusion that – just because one set of voters was hugely disappointed and disillusioned by the result, and moaned about it louder on Facebook than the rest of the country put together – the entire British electorate will by now have seen the error of its ways, and will all dutifully return to the pro-EU fold with their tails tucked firmly between their legs.

Democracy does not exist just to vindicate one set of prejudices, and delegitimise all others

Erm... what’s this impression based on, exactly? I’m seeing nothing that could possibly account for a turnaround of such gargantuan proportions. Surveys and polls? Some now indicate a ‘Remain’ majority, that much is true. But surveys and polls also predicted a Remain win in 2016, and... well... just look how that went.

What else? Ah yes: the European media were unanimous in their reaction to the first result: heaping scorn and derision onto the decision itself, and gleefully depicting the Brits as the ‘laughing stock of Europe’. Yes, that is also true; and yes, it offers a clear indication of how very isolated Britain is in her current predicament. But how, exactly, is that supposed to convince eurosceptic voters to change their minds? How many minds do you recall having ever been changed – on any issue – by simply insulting and humiliating the very people you are trying to convince?

And in any case, that was how the intention to vote for Brexit was all along portrayed by the media in the build-up to the first referendum. And again, look at the result. In fact, I sometimes wonder if a majority would have voted for Brexit at all, if they were not so hurt and resentful at the endless belittling of their private concerns...

Speaking of which: what’s actually changed in that department since June 2016? I need hardly add that this is the single most important consideration of all, seeing as people base their voting intentions on their own concerns... and not on the convictions of complete strangers who live in very different social bubbles.

As far as I can see, all the factors which contributed to the original result are still very firmly in place. Immigration, for instance. Poverty and unemployment. Disillusionment with mainstream politics. All the bread and butter issues that (coupled with xenophobia) have fuelled, and continue to fuel, the rise of the populist right in the UK, and other parts of Europe. I’m unaware of any street-level changes at any such level in the last 18 months. Certainly, nothing that could justify the expectation of such a radical, nationwide change of heart.

I suspect much the same dynamic lurks behind the more recent Italian election result, which – oh my, what a co-incidence – also yielded a majority for the more eurosceptic parties, and a thrashing for all the rest. And of course, Italian voters are all wrong, too. If Italy were to hold another election is 18 months’ time (which it very well might)... let me guess: everyone’s just going to assume that the country will by then have recalibrated its entire political compass, on the basis of all their own online outrage, right?  That Italian voters will all just forget about their own misgivings, their own political opinions, their own day-to-day worries and tribulations, their own prejudices – yes, prejudices. Why not? Everyone is entitled to an irrational preconceived notion, you know... not just the select few – and vote for the opposite outcome that they actually want... all because a small army of online political ‘experts’ howled and stamped their feet a little on Twitter?

Sorry, folks, but it just doesn’t work that way: not in Italy, not in the UK, not in any part of the democratic world. Democracy does not exist just to vindicate one set of prejudices, and delegitimise all others. So, if Britain is unwise enough to insist on this second referendum, my hunch is that the British people will simply return the original answer... possibly this time with a PS: ‘And don’t bloody ask again’.

(This article has a PS, too: you will by now surely have realised that the same underlying pattern also underpins all our own little political controversies of the moment... but I’ll leave you to work it all out for yourselves).

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