Written by Robin Dunbar


This article was first published in ‘Briefings for Bexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission.   You can read Part 1 here.


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It is difficult to understand the claim that we need a second referendum – other than as a cynical attempt to overturn the will of the people (a tactic, by the way, resorted to occasionally by other European governments, few of whom have a tradition of democratic government older than a century, and most a great deal less).

We have effectively already had three votes on whether or not to leave the EU – the original 2016 referendum, the 2017 election (when the two main political parties both stood on explicit manifestos to implement the decision of the 2016 Referendum), and the 2019 EU parliamentary elections (which catapulted the Brexit Party, which hadn’t existed until a few weeks before the election, into pole position with by far the largest share of the vote).

Those who promote a second referendum invariably claim that many 2016 Leave voters have since changed their minds and there would now be a clear majority in favour of rescinding Article 50 and remaining in the EU. Given the results of previous elections, one wonders where they get their evidence. Even the opinion polls are resolutely stuck at being too close to call. I personally haven’t come across any 2016 Leave voters who regretted their decision, but I have come across Remainers who regret having voted Remain and wouldn’t do so again.

Yet this is a claim I have heard repeated by senior Parliamentarians, admittedly mostly of a Liberal persuasion, as well as humble members of the electorate. If this was advertising claim, it wouldn’t pass the Trade Descriptions Act and would probably deserve prosecution for false advertising.

It may well be true that many people did not appreciate how difficult it would be to leave the EU, but I suspect most of those were actually Remain voters. Most Leave voters simply wanted to leave, and be done with any negotiations, knowing that the EU would be intransigent and, unlike a single sovereign state, would be incapable of engaging in any meaningful form of negotiation.

We are in the mess that we are in precisely because the May government did its best to try and build a consensus that satisfied the Remainers by keeping us half in. I am not in the least surprised at how difficult this has proved to be. The EU is not an economically rational institution: it is an ideological institution, built on the very undemocratic model of the French political system, driven by religious zeal to adhere to the letter of its principles even in the face of its own citizens’ objections. It is the ultimate case of “we know better than you plebs what is good for you”.

It seems that Remainers had (and, in my experience, have) very little real idea of how the EU actually works, how its political structures are organised, who has the reins of power, or how they have behaved towards other member states (notably Greece). By the same token, they parrot economists’ models of the consequences of leaving the EU without any understanding of how these models are arrived at – a state of affairs for which economists at both the Treasury and the Bank of England probably deserve censure for failing to make this clear, for failing to admit that models are only models, for failing to admit that their models don’t have an especially impressive record for predicting the future behaviour of either markets or economies, and for failing to point out that an economy is not something that is fixed in the firmament forever but changes dynamically on a scale of decades.

What is good for the economy today will be irrelevant, or even bad, as little as a decade hence – whereas the political system will remain in place forever, short of an invasion or a revolution.  Failure to recognise this is tantamount to insisting that we stay in the EU because it began life as a coal (and steel) trading block and our 19th century economy was built on coal. Um…but we don’t have a coal mining industry any more…. It’s the equivalent of locking oneself into a room and throwing away the key when the entire street outside has been demolished and its economy moved on.

The death of democracy? Democracy died as soon after the 2016 Referendum as it took the shocked occupants of the Palace of Westminster to start trying to find arcane and obscure parliamentary mechanisms that might allow them to obstruct, or even reverse, the results of the Referendum, notwithstanding the views of their constituents. Crying foul at the current government’s attempts to implement its policies is little short of culpable dishonesty.

Ironically, none of these ardent defenders of parliamentary democracy seem to be aware that they only have the vote now because Lord Grey’s Whig (Liberal) government resorted to the device of proroguing Parliament in order to allow the Great Reform Bill of 1832 that extended the vote and laid the foundations for our modern constituency system to be tabled for a third time: it had been voted down twice by vested interests in the House of Commons and the Lords, and convention prevented a bill being laid before Parliament more than twice (as Speaker Bercow so helpfully reminded Mrs May when generously allowing her a third attempt but refusing a fourth).


(Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.)


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