In the first edition of his column for Pi Politics, Benjy Goodwin takes a look at the hard truths of a “People’s Vote” – by taking to the streets with the people clamouring for it.
On Saturday, an estimated 700,000 people wearing EU berets marched through the streets of London chanting “bollocks to Brexit” and calling for a “People’s Vote”. I would describe myself as agnostic on marches. I’ve been moved to protest in the past by just two issues: refugees and Trump. Other issues that I care passionately about, including Brexit, have not inspired me to take to the streets. However, this time, I decided to go along and observe.
Now, I’m at a loss as to what is it about this proposed vote that merits the label “people’s vote”. Last time I checked, the first referendum, not to mention local, general, and even European elections, also involve ‘the people’. The phrasing even has a slightly Soviet feel to it; prefixing things with “people’s”. But I’ll let that slide.
For me, it is more an issue of specifics. At parliament square this weekend, speakers repeatedly uttered words along the lines of “…And our message is simple: we demand a final say on Brexit!”. The problem is, that message isn’t very simple. The central unanswered question: what would be the question in the referendum? There seem to be a range of opinions on this matter, and to my mind they vary greatly in desirability.
I started my day on Saturday by asking people what their ideal ballot paper would look like. The answers were varied. One, stunned silence. Another, simply “stay in or leave” (what does “leave” mean?). A third, that this march was less about having a workable proposal and more of a general expression of anti-Brexit sentiment. This confirmed my suspicion that many People’s Voters aren’t entirely clear on what they want. But it also boosted my fears that a second referendum might not take the form that us Remainers hope for.
Let’s say Theresa May manages to bring back a deal from Brussels in the coming weeks, and Parliament rejects it. To me, it seems somewhat possible that, were she to remain prime minister, May could call a second referendum as a means of resolving the crisis. I fear, however, that that referendum would constitute a “take it or leave it” decision. That is, it would be Deal or No Deal.
Firstly, this would not be ideal as there would be no option to remain. More importantly, though, it would be dangerous as it would include the option of a ‘No Deal’. Contrary to the government’s favoured catchphrase, ‘No Deal’ is worse than a bad deal. It is the worst deal. It means a complete breakdown in trade. It means huge customs backlogs. Indeed, medicines are already being stockpiled due to fears that a ‘No Deal’ scenario could leave us without access to basic medical supplies.
It is for this reason that I have always been wary of a second referendum. I have never felt that it would be anti-democratic to vote again – that argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As former Brexit Secretary David Davis himself once said, “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”. But a second referendum is ultimately only good for one thing: stopping Brexit. If the option to Remain isn’t on the ballot paper – or it creates the possibility of the hardest of Brexits – it is good for nothing.
The thing is, that for all my pessimism and scepticism surrounding this subject, I left the People’s Vote march on Saturday feeling positive. I enjoyed myself. The crowds were optimistic and enthusiastic. People were out there in the sun, having a good time. There were people from all over the country, and of all ages, demonstrating their support for an open, tolerant, and outward-facing Britain – and there were 700,000 of them. I found myself hoping, along with the others there, that we do get a second vote.
But it’s a hope for a rather unlikely situation: Theresa May gets a deal, it doesn’t pass through parliament, she remains Prime Minister, she changes her mind on holding the vote, and she doesn’t include No Deal on the ballot paper. Even in that scenario, votes can go either way. It’s more like hoping you win the lottery – it would be great, but you wouldn’t start racking up a credit card bill just yet.
Maybe I’m too pessimistic and too bogged down in the details. As Hugo Rifkind said on Saturday, if the Brexiteers don’t have practical policies, then why should we hold Remainers to such a high standard? Well, ultimately, one of the aims of the People’s Vote campaign is to persuade people like me that it is practically possible – or even likely – that we will manage to stop Brexit. I’m afraid that in my case, it hasn’t worked. And sadly, no number of EU berets will change that.