Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

Why Britain needs a People’s vote on Brexit

Insisting on the irreversibility of the 2016 referendum amounts to a denial of democracy, writes Thomas Kielinger.

“If by the people you understand the multitude, the hoi polloi, ‘tis no matter what they think; they are sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong: their judgment is a mere lottery”, John Dryden wrote in “Essay of Dramatick Poesie” in 1668. The moment of truth is fast approaching.

A monster is staring the British in the face – Brexit, the holy vows of irreversibility, coming with the drumbeat of the to-thine-own-vote-be-true. I suppose it was this monster that was also staring Jo Johnson in the face before he made up his mind to jump out of the Brexit ship of no return.

Irreversible – how I hate this word. I hated it ever since the day of Helmut Kohl’s fabled speech in Louvain in February 1996, when he trumpeted the irreversibility of an ever-closer European Union, couching the issue in terms of war or peace. The implication being that if you were against the fixed march towards his vision of an integrated Europe you were risking future wars.

What Kohl had of course in mind was a Germany still not quite to be trusted, a Germany that needed to be tied in a fail-safe framework of transnational contracts like the European Union. I objected to this lugubrious view of the country I had learned to appreciate as a fully-grown democratic commonwealth, with liberty and justice for all, safely anchored in a system of checks and balances. It absolutely escaped me how everyone in Europe had to be taken hostage to Kohl’s fear about a likely resurgence of German nationalism, now that the country had become re-united after the fall of the Berlin wall.

My second objection to the use of “irreversibility” as a political weapon had to do with how I was then trying to make sense of the British national character, and how I felt such overblown political rhetoric could only deter a Britain that we were hoping to coax into a more resolute role in the Europe of the future. You won’t win over a country wedded to a method of trial and error by preaching to it the irreversibility of the political process moving towards an end submerged in patent disagreement.

Now the Brexiteers, to my mind, are making the same mistake Kohl made more than thirty years ago. They absolutely and religiously enjoin that the decision of June 2016 merits no further consideration by the people – that another vote would mock this decision and would thus be totally and abjectly undemocratic.

Before I go on though, I must own up to where I stand in the great Brexit divide. How could I, as an onlooker from the outside, credibly judge the merits of the one or the other side or pretend I knew where the best solution lies? In fact I have a great deal of sympathy for the Brexiteers and their belief in the British national psyche rising above the sling and arrows of outrageous fortune to eventually triumph over adversity.

The direction of this decision is not my point. I am arguing against the irreversibility of 2016 not because I am hoping it might be reversed but because I fear the people may feel excluded from the right to review a decision patently taken with a minimum of understanding what it entailed. How many knew, to name but one example, about the vexed question of the Irish border? Surely everybody has become more knowledgeable over the course of the last two years’ debate to demand another look at what is at stake.

A people’s vote this time around would not be a second referendum. That terminology I reserve for the either-or conundrum of 2016, the binary question of in or out of yesteryear. This time around it would be about a rather more sophisticated and knowledge-inspired decision concerning a given document on the table. And I assume there will be one, as a no-deal would be mutually abhorrent to either negotiating party.

Again, I have no stake in whatever outcome may emerge the second time around. My argument is that it simply goes against the democratic tradition of the parliamentary democracy that is Great Britain to postulate irreversibility when so much needs to be weighed in the balance. It is different from national elections where the losing side may hope to be able to turn the result around next time. In a plebiscite, you are playing with fire if you do not make absolutely sure the people have a chance to come to their conclusion on the basis of a debate far more enlightened than was the case two years ago. If the decision goes again in favour of leaving the EU – fair enough. At least nobody can complain about having been steamrollered into a situation about which he was not sufficiently educated.

One might be tempted to go back to David Cameron’s original mistake of having offered a referendum on EU membership in the first place, rather than letting the issue work itself through the mechanism of representative government, i.e. parliament. Yet the die is cast, the genie is out of the bottle – the “lottery” as John Dryden called it.

It is thus all the more important to combine the parliamentary tradition with the rule-book of referenda by allowing a vote on the finality of the decision to leave the EU. Sticking to an allegedly irreversible outcome two and a half years ago while the light now shines more brightly on the issues involved would be a fateful denial not just of common sense, but of a basic democratic right itself. The divisions within the country the referendum laid bare would not be healed. Rather, they would become more poignant still and thus hinder a long-overdue return to the domestic agenda just when you needed all your wits to deal with everything that is so glaringly unresolved in Great Britain today.

Thomas Kielinger OBE (Hon.) was the London-based correspondent of the German national newspaper “Die Welt”. He now writes about British history.

Published in November 2018