Jamie Mackie, Scot and EMiS member living in Belgium, shares his views on a second referendum. Written January 2018:
Settling the argument once and for all
It seems increasingly likely that we might just be heading for a second Brexit referendum on the result of the negotiations. If we do, we should learn from the wrangling of this past 18 months and seek to ensure that the second time round the vote is set up in such a way as ‘settle the argument once and for all’ as Nigel Farage himself has said. Given the way the first referendum has been so divisive, it is surely important for all of us to work out under what conditions might a second referendum really put the question to rest and not just divide Britain further?
The first, most obvious step, would be to set a higher threshold for a such a far-reaching decision, say 60% of voters must agree with the proposal for it to pass. In Belgium votes on constitutional change require a two thirds majority so as to ensure there is a clear decision. With a clear majority either way those who voted the other way would find it easier to accept that their view was in the minority and they should concede gracefully. If the threshold was not reached then there would be no change to the status quo and everyone would have to recognise that we were too divided to reach a clear decision and the argument could not be settled once and for all, at least not for now with the proposal on the table.
However, looking back at the debate since June 2016, there are a number of other issues that could also be tackled with more careful thought about how the referendum was organised. Doing so might also leave us more satisfied with the result.
For instance, a second point is to acknowledge that a major decision such as Brexit will affect the lives of British people for decades to come. There is not much that can be done about future generations, but we should at least include as many young people as possible in the vote and lower the voting age to 17 or 16 as was done for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
A third point is to recognise that all British people are deeply affected by Brexit and not just those in the UK at the time of the vote. We should therefore ensure that as many British citizens across the world had the right to vote as possible. British citizens living in continental EU are particularly badly affected by Brexit and should have a say. At the moment British expats lose the right to vote after 15 years abroad. In 2015 David Cameron promised to correct this anomaly but he never got around to it. Given the time required to pass the legislation this measure should in fact already be tackled now.
We could even go further and do as in Australia where all citizens are required to vote or face a fine unless they qualify for agreed exceptions. That may well be a step too far for the UK, because British voters are not used to such an obligation to vote, but in the case of such a major decision, this would be one of the clearest ways of removing any doubts as to what the real majority of voters thought.
Finally, we should think what can be done if different parts of the UK vote in different ways. Obviously, we cannot apply different results city by city, but it has become apparent that if the different nations of the UK do get different results it causes many people to question the solidity and continuing validity of the Union. So, should we not be explicit before the referendum about what will happen if this occurs again? Like that voters can recognise that their vote may have consequences for the Union and make up their mind accordingly.
Thus, we could recognise in advance that if Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland did vote differently than England, they would be entitled to follow through on their decision and a further referendum on independence might well follow. The issue could even be raised with the EU institutions in advance, with a request that if only some of the four nations chose to stay in the EU they could do so, providing a legal process was set up before the referendum. This would push voters not just to think of how Brexit affected them, but also what the impact might be for voters in other parts of the UK such as in Northern Ireland.
There is of course one other solution to this last question and that is to revive the idea of the double lock. That is, for the result to go through it must be accepted not just at the level of the UK but also at the level of each of the four nations. The downside to that is that the population of England is so much larger than that of the other 3 nations and if English voters voted clearly one way while all the others went the other way, English voters might well feel aggrieved if their vote did not prevail. To avoid this, it may therefore be better to adopt the former solution and simply make it clear from the outset that if different nations had different results they would each be entitled to draw their own conclusions and perhaps decide to leave the Union.
Taking a bit more care about how the referendum is organised might leave us all more satisfied with the result and less divided as a society.
EMiS is keen to publish blog posts from its Members – get in touch if you would like to contribute your views to the debate.