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Second Brexit Referendum Would Exemplify Democracy

Second Brexit Referendum Would Exemplify Democracy

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Tuesday, 22 January 2019 04:32 PM Current | Bio | Archive

There is general agreement that former British Prime Minister David Cameron made made a disastrous mistake in calling a referendum to determine whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. A question like Brexit — in which many conflicting considerations needed to be weighed against each other — is too complicated for an electorate to decide.

Democracy is not and cannot literally be "government by the people." It is best understood as government by some people who are limited in what they can get away with by the people, acting through elections.

Cameron thought that the voters would opt to remain in the Union, which was what he wanted to do but couldn't get his fellow politicians to support. When the voters instead narrowly decided to leave the European Union, he resigned, leaving the resulting mess for his successor, Theresa May.

The new prime minister has been unable to negotiate Brexit terms acceptable both to the House of Commons and to leaders of the European Union. There is no majority in Commons for any decision. Extraordinary action by Queen Elizabeth II to decide the question herself would violate the long tradition that constitutional monarchs don't make policy decisions.

The only other way to resolve the current political deadlock may be a second referendum.

The 2019 electorate is no more capable of deciding a complicated issue than it was three years ago. But this time it might at least make a less uninformed decision, since the likely costs and side effects of leaving the Union have now been discussed widely.

And although a referendum to decide this kind of thing is still a terrible idea, given the absence of viable alternatives, it may be the least terrible possibility.

Unfortunately, even deciding to hold another referendum may be more than British elected politicians can summon up the courage to do. Many observers assume that this time a referendum would favor remaining in the European Union, so most politicians who favor Brexit will probably oppose letting the people vote again.

They will argue that calling a second referendum would betray and undermine democracy and negate the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum.

This objection is nonsense.

It is fairly common for governments to reverse past decisions when their consequences turn out to be bad or when conditions have changed. In the U.S., for example, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages imposed by the Eighteenth Amendment went so badly that it was repealed 14 years later by the Twenty First Amendment. Now and then the U.S. Supreme Court overrules a previous decision.

If legislatures and courts can change their minds, there is no reason why the public should be uniquely incapable of changing its collective mind. Why should the decision of a past majority trump a contrary decision by a current majority?

It would be a very unattractive concept of democracy to assume that a country's people are unable to learn from experience or from further thought and actually change their minds.

Second thoughts are often better than individuals or groups can come up with when they first think about a question. Reconsideration can constitute an appeal "from the public drunk to the public sober."

Some countries even embody this concept in their constitutions. Denmark, for example, requires that constitutional amendments be endorsed by its parliament twice, with a general election in between.

Clearly, a majority vote on Brexit in 2019 would be just as democratic as a majority decision in the 2016 referendum. But we should not assume that discussion of this issue in the United Kingdom will be principled.

Unfortunately, in political life people often invoke principles in a highly unprincipled way.

Maybe Queen Elizabeth will have to settle the matter after all, either by deciding to abandon Brexit without the permission of her ministers, or at least deciding to put the question to a second referendum, again without ministerial permission. In the latter case she could hardly be charged with undermining democracy, since referendums are an exercise in direct, as distinguished from representative, democracy.

There is no way to predict what will actually happen. But the date when Brexit is supposed to begin is only two months away. Stay tuned for further developments.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
 

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Clearly, a majority vote on Brexit in 2019 would be just as democratic as a majority decision in the 2016 referendum. But we should not assume that discussion of this issue in the United Kingdom will be principled.
cameron, elizabeth, may, queen
810
2019-32-22
Tuesday, 22 January 2019 04:32 PM
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