Referendum Remorse

All the bad things the experts said would happen if Britain would vote Leave have started happening, and the Remain side is putting the country through the biggest “We-told-you-so” since Churchill told them what would happen if they pursued the policy of appeasement.

The consequences are not so dire as those of Munich, but warnings that this is not a passing crisis but a historical turning point that will affect Britons for generations — and not for the good — has the country reeling. Even many of those who voted Leave are no doubt having painful second thoughts.

But Britain has not yet formally left the European Union, and the Remain faction believes there’s still time to rectify the blunder. A petition signed by 4.1 million calls for a new referendum on whether to leave the EU. By the time we go to press, the number will probably be much more than that.

The government did not shilly-shally in rejecting the petition. It will not countenance a referendum on the referendum.

“The prime minister and government have been clear that this was a once-in-a-generation vote and, as the prime minister has said, the decision must be respected,” it said. As well, both candidates to replace David Cameron as leader of the ruling Conservative Party and prime minister have committed themselves to carrying out the expressed will of the people to leave.

But the issue will not just be waved away. A thousand barristers (lawyers, to you Americans) have now signed a letter arguing that Brexit cannot go into effect unless or until Parliament has voted on it.

They say that the facts of the case were misrepresented, making it impossible for voters to make an informed decision, and are calling for a royal commission to ascertain the facts and re-present them to the public.

Furthermore, they contend that the referendum was really only valid as an advisory, not a national commitment, since “it did not set a threshold necessary to leave the EU, commonly adopted in polls of national importance, e.g., 60 percent of those voting or 40 percent of the electorate.”

Their letter will presumably get the same treatment as the multimillion-signature petition. But they aren’t stopping there. A legal challenge to the government’s intention to begin the withdrawal procedure almost immediately is slated for the high court next week.

We can certainly sympathize with the distress of those who are convinced that the exit from the EU was an exit from rational decision-making and an entry into economic and political disintegration.

As one of the barristers put it, a new referendum is necessary “if the U.K. is to survive the result of this vote…Fully informed discussions and deliberations within and between our parliaments is the only proper constitutional way to achieve this. Precipitate or unilateral action by the U.K. government will simply further divide us.”

Whether the nation’s survival is really at stake is, of course, a matter of conjecture. No one knows, including the economic and legal experts, what will happen in the coming months and years if the U.K. carries out the plan.

The arguments for redoing or canceling the referendum results are rather specious. In every major political debate accusations of distorting the facts — or plain lying — are part of the robust give-and-take of democracy. It is the task of each side to make sure that the other doesn’t hoodwink the public. If you think the other side did hoodwink the public, it might just be a sign that you ran an incompetent campaign, and deserved to lose.

If the Brexit referendum is undone because the Remainers say the Leavers misrepresented the facts, then almost any vote on anything is vulnerable to the same charge, and nothing will stick; no decision, no election, will ever be considered final. A great part of the success of Western democracy resides in the willingness of the losing side in any contest to accept the majority vote as the will of the people, even if it hangs on a hanging chad in Republican-run Florida.

The time to challenge an electoral result is the next election, not the next morning. We tend to underestimate the profound service to democratic stability rendered by Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000, when they accepted the final vote count without demanding a new election or fomenting rebellion, as happens in other places.

Regarding the argument that the Brexit referendum was not really a referendum but only an advisory, that was certainly not the understanding when people went to the polls. They did not think they were merely advising the government what to do — they were definitely telling it what to do. Had the outcome gone the other way, the Remainers would not have had any reservations about the finality of the vote.

Are the British people, then, irrevocably locked into a decision which half the country believes is leading to unmitigated disaster?

Not necessarily. If, in a few years from now, the British people find themselves longing so strongly to rejoin the European Union, it is entirely possible that both sides will swallow their pride and find a way for England to return. It is also possible that Britain will discover that Brexit wasn’t the end of the world after all.

With that, for now, we exit the question.