It is difficult to raise the case for a 2nd EU Referendum without being branded a loopy leftist democracy denier. This is a projection that has been used to kill a movement based upon legitimate reasoning. It has sparked fear in the minds of many, binding them to a wholly illegitimate future through fear of getting a reputation as an opposer to democracy. This projection is incorrect and ill intentioned. The case for a second Referendum is as legitimate as it is necessary. The Brexit campaign has undermined the face of representative democracy in the UK and is threatening to destroy the guardrails that contain and support our democratic system. The vote became saturated by lies, rhetoric and other factors so wholly indefensibly undemocratic they justify a revision of the decision. The fight for a second referendum is scorned by Brexiteers as merely the work of bad losers, but what could be more democratic than the unveiling of a fraudulent vote and it’s subsequent re-democratisation?
What is democracy? It is first important to provide clarity on a system that is so central to our lives we often overlook its very definition. Abraham Lincoln provided its most famous description during the Gettysburg address of 1863, ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. Truth be told, there are innumerable definitions of democracy, however, all definitions share a common theme at their core: the provision of regular, free and fair elections. Key to this article will be the notions of free and fair, for the denial of these had major implications upon the outcome of the EU Referendum. Since Lincoln’s address much has changed, the nature of democracy faces threats from areas of social, political, geopolitical and economic life that did not exist in the 19th century. Many of these threats, which have been part of a wider movement of deceit and deception in UK politics since, formed blatant obstacles to the implementation of a free and fair democratic environment during the 2016 Brexit campaign. In what ways, then, did the campaign of 2016 fail to meet the democratic standards we ought to be able to expect of our system? The first and most blatant denial of democracy was the use of language and falsified information by the Brexit campaign. This includes the use of exaggerated claims of support for Brexit policies, the distorted portrayal of power relations between the UK and the EU, the portrayal of the UK being subordinate to the EU in the design of the single market and the oversimplification of policy negotiations that were unattainable in the real world (eg. Boris Johnson’s claim that an extra £350m would be free to spend on the NHS). More disproven lines of argument used by the Brexit camp can be found here. The policy of dressing Brexit up as a harbinger of progress is still present in current government policy, the recent ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report has had 9 of its key points fact-checked and dispelled. The constant stream of lies and inaccuracies repeated throughout the Brexit campaign were used to undermine the nature of rational debate amongst the population, people were unable to have a useful and educational debate due to the false nature of the information they received . Sten Hansson and Sandra Kröger described four ways in which representative democracy was undermined: Reducing freedom and equality, weakening accountability, undermining trust in democratic institutions and jeopardising the ability to compromise. The common theme is that all of these factors deny the ability of a population to come to conclusions in a free and fair environment. The Brexit camp exploited knowledge gaps amongst the population, preying on ignorance and taking advantage of the electorate. Democratic representation requires truthfulness. The Leave campaign offered the opposite. The second way Vote leave showed their disregard for democracy was in their breaking of electoral law. According to the UK Electoral Commission, Vote Leave exceeded electoral spending limits by £500,000 and also failed to cooperate with their subsequent investigation (Resulting in a fine of £61,000). This dismissal of electoral law is a blatant assault on our democratic standards. Both Johnson and Gove dismissed the Observers original claims relating to excessive spending, however, remained incredibly quiet following their confirmation by the Electoral Commission. The Brexit campaign is shrouded in a veil of illegitimate spending, not only via the Vote Leave campaign but also through the use of BeLeave as their extended arm and the obscurity of donations relating to the DUP’s Brexit campaign. BeLeave was a pro-Brexit campaign group which was found guilty by the electoral commission of illegitimate campaign spending. Examples of advertisements produced by BeLeave were used in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s enquiry into fake news. Democracy in the UK was undermined further when those responsible for breaking rules were never held accountable for their actions. This was due to the advisory nature of the Brexit referendum, which meant that it was not under the jurisdiction of the electoral court, unlike a general election. The use of the disgraced political advisory company, Cambridge Analytica, by both Vote Leave and UKIP serves to further undermine the legitimacy of the Brexit vote. Cambridge Analytica supplied the Leave campaign with data sets on millions of people, wrongfully obtained against their will, whom they then targeted with specific online advertisements (also linked to the breaking of electoral spending laws). These adverts are also shrouded in claims of Russian interference. The Russia report, produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, found that claims of interference were ignored by the government, which failed to investigate Russian interference to any degree. The report concluded that Russian interference is the new normal in UK politics, highlighting links to interference in the Scottish referendum, UK political links to Russian elites and stating the UK as a top target for Russian interference. The disproportionate subjugation of people to online advertisements pushing the rhetoric of Vote Leave and UKIP was a blatant manipulation of the electorate and their political understanding and impeded their freedom of choice. The disregard for upholding democracy is one of numerous factors that justify a second referendum. The failure of Brexit negotiations to produce a deal even remotely similar to that promised is another significant reason. Some proposed a vote upon the final Brexit deal achieved.This was not only in the best interest of Remainers but also of Brexiteers. Members of the public who voted for Brexit were sold a false narrative, a figment of the leave campaign’s imagination which they ultimately failed to deliver upon. It is the democratic right of voters to be able to choose again based upon the information that has since come to light. The changing age of the electorate is also a significant justification for the case of a second referendum. Young people were all but excluded from the EU Referendum, even though they were always going to be the ones left with the long-term consequences of a leave vote. This is a frustration that many young people across the country can resonate with. The voting age in the context of Brexit cannot be framed with the same context as a general election, the referendum was a vote on the long-term future of the UK. The cyclical nature of general elections gives credit to the revision of circumstances and the option to change one’s vote in periodic sequences. Brexit was never of the same nature, therefore there was an appropriate argument for lowering the voting age to 16. The disregard for the youth of our nation, regarding the decision to leave the EU, is damning and reflective of a self serving and self preserving elite that are in no way concerned with representing the needs of young people within the UK. Additionally, recent polling has shown a stark change in public opinion regarding the decision to leave the EU. Irrespective of other very legitimate factors, this obvious change in public opinion deserves to be recognised and represented by our democratic system. If it is not, we are choosing to ignore the obvious erosion and subversion of our democratic system. Something which poses a serious threat to our future. So, having proven the illegitimacy of the referendum, where are we now left? The aforementioned swings in public opinion are yet to be reflected in the language of UK politicians, but such changes cannot be ignored forever. Some are proposing closer ties with the EU and others a possible reentry into the single market. Whatever the UK’s actions are to be in the future, it is apparent the current trajectory of Brexit is not working. The case for a second referendum may not be completely out of the question if public opinion continues to shift, given the fast-moving nature of British politics in recent times it is a feasible proposition. Issues relating to the EU’s stance and the resultant deal of a second referendum need to be explored, however, this can only begin to happen if we are able to acknowledge the issues forwarded within this article. Michel Barnier, former head of the European Commission’s Taskforce for Relations with the United Kingdom, has recently declared the door would still be open for the UK to rejoin the EU. Declaring the matter of Brexit done with does not suffice, when many people are dealing with the negative consequences and large swings in public opinion are taking place the debate has to be recognised by those governing our country. The alarming context of the referendum is ignored by many at the top of UK politics, mainly from those within the conservative party with the goal of self-preservation. The illegitimacy is clear to see. Those at the head of our political system may turn a blind eye to the nature of the 2016 vote, but stark changes in polling are beginning to reflect a swing in public opinion. The Brexit vote can be contested on numerous grounds, mainly the overt breaches of democratic laws and standards. This has wider implications for the security of our political system as we know it. If senior politicians continue to ignore what happened in 2016, they risk jeopardising the very existence of democracy in the UK.
Words: Oliver Humphrey
Image credit: Oliver Humphrey