Should there be a second referendum?

27/06/2016  -  11.01

Professor Mike Haynes - Professor of International Political Economy

It is the worst UK constitutional crisis in living memory and it is not going away. Don't believe those politicians who tell you that the vote has to be respected. It is more complex than that. More than three million largely shocked Remainers have signed a petition calling for a second referendum. But this is not the issue.

The referendum has given the combined forces of the Brexiters a mandate to try to leave the EU. They have no mandate for any one person or group to lead us there. They have no mandate for how to get there.  Most serious of all, they have no mandate about where they should take us to. And whoever does the deal faces a parliament in which they may not be able to generate enough votes to pass any plan or deal that they come up with. An election or a second referendum is implicit in the political and constitutional form of the crisis.

Referenda are peculiar things. A sovereign people can make a decision in a referendum one day but logically make a different decision the next. This is all the more so if there is, as the SNP puts it, a 'significant and material change' change in circumstances.

If we choose government by referenda then in logic there is no reason why we should not have an infinite number of them. This is not practical politics. But a second referendum or what Michael Heseletine in a BBC interview called 'another constitutional affirmation of the deal' that might be agreed is implicit in the politics of the situation.

The Brexit side is divided over what it wants. The political mechanism makes it hard to see how the Brexiters can unite around a common negotiating stance. This is all the more so if one group of Brexiters (Johnson/Gove) seeks to exclude another (Farage). Even a cross party coalition/ negotiating group of Brexiters would necessarily minimise any UKIP input. So why should UKIP and its supporters accept anything agreed by what they see as 'the other lot' and all the more so if they divide on immigration?

One possible way forward might be to use an early election to try to find a negotiating mandate. But since that would be fought on a party political basis with the major parties split, the meaning of the result would be far from clear. It is even conceivable that in the confusion and chaos it might be won by a Remain party. The same would apply to an election to legitimate any deal that might be done post negotiation. It is not clear that any party could win a clear mandate with a specific form of out as its main manifesto commitment.

It is this that puts the issue of another referendum back on the table. It might even have to involve a question as simple as the last one because any alternative question could also produce stalemate. 'Do you support this negotiated deal' might get a no from an alliance of remain and discontented outers.

Political theorists have long speculated about the theoretical problem of democratic paralysis. We are now faced with a possible real democratic paralysis. This is why, as Heseltine has said, whatever people say today there is going to be a search to find another form of constitutional affirmation of a way out. And if it cannot be done by an election then it may have to be done by a second referendum with all its unforeseen consequences.