I’ve been having the same mental (in two senses) conversation with myself for some time now. That means that I need to scratch the itch and write the bloody thing down. If it is OK with you, I shall do that here, and I shall do that now. The thing I keep thinking about is Brexit. It shouldn’t be a surprise.
The conversation comes up every time I hear about the idea of a second EU referendum vote. I have a strong negative reaction – which I will tell you about shortly – followed by remembering what I have said to myself time after time over the last few weeks. It is getting so frequent that I almost know the whole conversation off by heart now. I’ll spare you the full script here, if you don’t mind.
It is currently the 26th of November, and the night has drawn in quickly. Theresa May has hammered out a deal with the EU27, which has been ratified by the EU Heads of Government at a summit in the sexiest part of the world, Belgium. It is unlikely that Theresa May will get the deal through the UK parliament, at least on the first attempt, so December looks set to be politically explosive. A number of potential scenarios following a failed vote have been mooted, among them the “People’s Vote”.
Personally, I find this phraseology utterly patronising, and deliberately manipulative. It reminds me of the rebranding of Princess Diana (loathed by all one minute) to The People’s Princess (loved by all the very next minute). It feels like window dressing, and I don’t enjoy the sensation one little bit.
The campaign for a second referendum on the UK’s place in the EU started the day after we voted to leave in the first place. I was in Lucca at the time, and my consternation at the rising cost of keeping my family fed was a real incentive to reversing the first people’s vote. We voted by post, by the way.
The people who are campaigning for this second, People’s, Vote have always had the whiff of sour grapes about them, and that is my main negative reaction. It reminds me of our eldest daughter asking again and again and again for sweets, even when she has been told the answer categorically.
If the original vote was, as we are often told, a rejection of liberal elitism, would rejecting the result not smell just like high handed paternalism on the part of reputedly liberal remain voters? It would amount to a further disenfranchisement of people who were already feeling pretty disenfranchised.
And here is my main problem. Ever since the vote result was announced, much has been read in the tea leaves of the cup of tea left at the end of the Leave after party. People have queued up left and right to assert the one true meaning of Brexit: the People clearly want a [Hard / Soft / No Deal / Light and Fluffy] Brexit; the numbers speak for themselves. Well, actually, no they don’t. They never have.
The question asked was binary for a start. As The Clash put it, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”. “Yes or No” doesn’t tell anyone anything about what kind of “yes” or what kind of “no” any given voter wants. We cannot extract that data, no matter how much we map demographics on to the voting data. Can’t be done.
The result was close for another thing. Aside from the notion that a question of national importance like this should require a two-thirds majority – Thanks for that one David Cameron – such a small difference in viewpoint can barely be treated as significant. Certainly not significant enough to draw further conclusions from it. We want to leave, but only just. That’s all we can infer from the result.
Brexit talks have therefore been carried out without seeing the will of the people beyond the word “Leave”.
And that is where my mind kicks in with its tried and tested script. It would be offensive – but mostly stupid – to ask the same people the same question a second time to get more information. I am a qualified and accredited market researcher, with more than a decade of experience in running surveys and asking people questions. I spend a lot of my life analysing the results of surveys.
My suggestion would be to ask a different question:
“Given that we, as a country, voted to leave the EU, what kind of Brexit would you most prefer?”
I would then offer a sliding scale of Brexit options, including remain, because I need it to be a complete scale. I am a complete nerd about this kind of thing.
No deal / Really Hard Brexit / Hard Brexit / Theresa May’s Deal / Quite Soft Brexit / Really Soft Brexit (e.g. EFTA, Norway or Switzerland) / Remain.
In order to ensure a true majority decision for such a split field I would suggest a ranked scale: one to four for your four favourite options. I believe it’s classed as a form of proportional representation, but it would be a mistake to dwell on that. If no option gets more than 50%, kick out the bottom one and add in the second preference votes. That way everyone is (theoretically at least) broadly happy.
The original referendum vote had a great turnout – its key strength was its legitimacy – a second one would need to match that. The fact that it is all we ever seem to talk about these days could be a double edged sword: we are well informed, we want the whole thing over and done with, we are sick to the back teeth of the whole thing. That bit in the middle was the flat bit between edges.
Personally, I think the more referenda the merrier, as long as we know what we’re voting for or against. In that regard the Swiss have it absolutely spot on, but their predilection toward public votes has nothing to do with their relationship with the EU, so it doesn’t help us here. I’m also not sure a public vote on the Northern Irish-Irish border would yield anything like a conclusive result.
As a country, we have spent two years discussing every aspect of Brexit, in the public sphere; two years since lies on the sides of buses; two years of realising that we all want very different things for very different reasons. We have information now; we didn’t have it then; we might actually be able to make an informed decision on the matter this time round. We need to be sure about all of this.