Parliament at the Cliff Edge:
Why a Second Referendum Could Destroy Its Authority
8 January 2019
With parliament now approaching its moment of decision, a second referendum, not a “no deal” Brexit, is the true “cliff edge” facing Britain.
If parliament calls a second referendum in which Remaining in the EU is an option, it will deal a massive blow to its own political credibility and authority. In case the reasons for this are not obvious, here they are. In 2015 parliament called for a referendum on EU membership. Having got a decision in 2016, 85 per cent of MPs in this parliament were then elected in 2017 on platforms promising to deliver Brexit. Parliament has left itself two available options for implementing Brexit: the prime minister’s Withdrawal Agreement or departure without an agreement. For MPs to refuse both, and call a second vote on EU membership itself, is a refusal to implement the 2016 referendum and, more importantly, to honour their key general election promise in 2017.
This refusal by MPs to honour their commitments to the electorate might not matter so much if the historical context were different, if parliament had enjoyed a great deal of authority prior to the 2016 referendum. But parliament’s authority was already weak before the first referendum. The public image of the political class is that they are a caste of careerists and chancers quite removed from the citizens they are supposed to represent, an impression summed up in the expenses scandal of a few years ago. Underlying this impression is decades of substantial political convergence around a narrow technocratic agenda that accepted that there was no alternative in economic life to rule by the market and embraced a programme of rapid top-down change to social norms in areas such as national identity, family life, gender, education, public culture, public health. With citizens fearing that their way of life is being destroyed, and many of them being deprived economically at the same time, most have become deeply distrustful of politics.
The problem is not merely that ordinary British citizens feel unrepresented politically, although that is bad enough. Worse is that the political process appears not to be one in which political representatives try to solve the problems faced by their electorate, but rather one in which the attitudes, preferences and lifestyles of the electorate are increasingly the problem to be solved by the political class. A second referendum on EU membership would re-enact this conflict between the political class and the electorate in a very concentrated form.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the key argument that is made in favour of a second referendum – that the electorate now has all the facts and knows what Brexit means in “reality” when we did not know this in 2016. This argument in itself encapsulates the conflict between political class and electorate. The “reality” of Brexit is something that has been created by the Remain establishment and the EU in the hope of driving us into a second referendum. As Richard Tuck has pointed out, the “facts” of Brexit are really “artefacts” of the negotiation process itself. Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement is a bad deal cooked up in the shadow of the constantly reiterated threat by MPs to rebel and nullify both the referendum and their own electoral manifesto commitments. It has been clear from the beginning that neither government nor parliament was willing to walk away without a deal. This gave the EU no incentive to negotiate. You do not have to be an expert in international trade to understand this.
As to “no deal”, we know very little that we did not already know in 2016. We are once again being regaled with predictions of economic Armageddon in the event of leaving without an agreement, just as we were warned of disaster if we voted to Leave in 2016. The majority of voters discounted those scare stories back then, and they turned out to be false. It is far from clear that the predictions of doom are any more soundly based now than they were then (see Analysis #11 - Why We Know Less than We Think About the Economic Impact of Brexit). This latest round of Project Fear is simply the Remainer political class again berating the electorate for not taking the advice of the establishment’s preferred experts.
The argument that we need a second referendum now that we know the facts amounts to no more than parliament calling out the electorate for its stupidity in imagining that it was possible to leave the EU when the politicians, civil servants, big business and academic experts did not recommend it. The elitism is brazen. But so is the denial that the authority of parliament lies in its relation to the electorate. Twice the electorate has been promised that its decision to leave the EU will be respected: once by the government before the referendum and once by government and opposition MPs in their 2017 general election manifestos. Calling a second referendum will be a transparent refusal to act on those commitments.
In the short run, a second referendum might “work” to nullify the first. Wearied voters may well conclude that, if our “representatives” can ignore two votes, turning out for a third is a waste of time. Why will it be respected any more than the previous two were? Remain MPs may get what they want. But they are going to get a whole lot more. Simply calling a second referendum will ensure that the large majority of the electorate (not only those who voted Leave in 2016) are made fully aware that their vote is of little value unless it accords with the preferences of their supposed betters. In the longer run, the consequences for parliament, and for democracy, are incalculable.
Parliament has no other source of authority except as the representative of the electorate. That authority is already perilously diminished. If MPs now repudiate both their own decision to give the question of EU membership to the electorate and their own electoral commitment to respect that decision, it could prove to be the final and self-inflicted blow.
Parliament’s unchallenged supreme power was inaugurated over three centuries ago when Charles Stuart’s arrogance and incompetence led to the downfall of monarchical power. There will be a poignant irony if the same fate now befalls parliament. But democrats cannot welcome this outcome. If this parliament repudiates its democratic authority, there is no alternative democratic movement waiting in the wings – no New Model Army, no workers’ councils. There will only be a cosmopolitan, Remainer political class that has isolated itself from the mass of the population, and will need to rule by containing the permanent threat from the excluded nation below.
Both no deal and May’s deal are far from perfect. Leaving on WTO terms would be much better than the prime minister’s agreement. But either is preferable to a second referendum. It would be a fake referendum, a faking of direct democracy that would risk destroying the credibility of representative democracy. There has been much exaggerated talk about no deal as an economic cliff edge. But it is reopening the possibility of staying in the EU that provides the real cliff edge, the political cliff edge that parliament is now standing on. MPs should not jump off.
 Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (London: Pelican, 2018).
 Peter Mair, Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).
 Richard Tuck, “A Second Referendum: just what the wreckers want”, Briefings for Brexit, December 2018.
About the Author
Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.