In June 2016, the British public participated in perhaps, the most significant political vote in the country’s history. With a turnout of 72%, it soon became clear that the UK’s membership of the European Union was a highly emotive issue.
When David Cameron’s Conservative government decided to let the public decide the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU, however, it is unlikely that they ever considered that the debate would still be unresolved, nearly three years later.
As the deadline for leaving the EU draws ever closer, it appears that the complexities of leaving the EU are far more intricate than expected.
The issue of the Irish border, in particular, has sparked worries of a return to the violence between the Irish Nationalists and the Unionists which ended with the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Against such a volatile political backdrop, the need for rational thinking and engaging in productive political debate has never been more important.
Why do we need a second referendum?
The decision to leave the EU was won by 3.78% of the votes, with a margin of 1,269,501 votes. Many parts of the UK, however, including all of Scotland, much of Northern Ireland, and many of the home counties and Greater London voted to remain.
There were pockets of remain majorities across the country but overall, much of the UK voted to leave the UK. The situation in Scotland, in particular, further complicates the debate with Nicola Sturgeon now using the results as reason for another vote on Scottish independence.
In both the general public and the political establishment, there are constant calls for a second referendum. Accusations of misleading information, uninformed voters, and even illegal campaigning have all been cited as valid reasons for a second referendum. From Remainer activists to Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, the desire for a second referendum is broad and far reaching.
In July 2018, the UK Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave had broken electoral law by overspending. Social media also came under fire with the Information Commissioner’s Office issuing a notice of intent to fine Facebook £500,000 for the unlawful harvesting of data from UK voters and reports from the House of Commons Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee reported that Russian agents had sought to manipulate the vote through Twitter and other social media outlets. In light of this information, should the UK have a second referendum and what are the implications of this?
Democracy: the most valuable of political ideals
Whether you’re pro-EU or staunchly pro-Brexit, there is a more important matter at the heart of the Brexit debate than our membership of the European Union.
When Jeremy Corbyn announced last November that ‘Brexit cannot be stopped’ he was vilified by angry Remainer activists and some of his fellow Labour members. But was Corbyn right? To stop Brexit would be to deny the public’s democratic decision. Despite the vote having been allegedly manipulated, British voters were not coerced into voting one way or another and were always able to exercise their democratic freedom.
The Brexit debate has highlighted that the UK is a politically fractured nation. It has brought out the worst in many people with rises in xenophobia and reduced tolerance on many levels of society. It has also shown the great political divide between the South of England and the rest of the UK. It is indeed, many of the working class areas across the North of England and the rural East Midlands and East of England where leave votes were particularly high.
Disenfranchisement of the working classes
To put the value of democracy into perspective it’s important to look at the UK’s political history. In 1918, following the horrors of the First World War, all men over 21 were given the right to vote by the Representation of the People Act. In 1928, the act was amended to include all women over the age of 21. The franchise gave the British public the democratic right to vote on their elected leaders’ decisions. It also gave them an intellectual responsibility for the governing of their own country.
It is these hard-fought rights which would be endangered were we to have a second referendum. If the democratic will of the people is not carried out, it suggests that their opinions are not relevant when it comes to the big constitutional matters which affect all our lives. With the deadline for leaving the EU less than a month away, our political leaders face a testing time ahead. It seems increasingly likely that Theresa May will seek an extension to the Brexit negotiations but this situation cannot continue indefinitely.
The UK’s political system is disunified like never before. This is reflected in the great divisions across all stratum of society. It is, however, now more than ever, that the UK must present a united front to the world, both on a political level and on a broader societal scale. Democracy is something which we should never take for granted and something we should seriously consider in regards to the Brexit debate.