This is the age of anger. It is also the age of regret. While voters are busy channelling their rage at the way things are going, more and more public figures are giving voice to their private regrets. Men in Hollywood deeply regret the way they’ve been treating women for years and promise to do better in future. In NGOs, at the BBC, in businesses and at universities there are plenty of people who can now see that things that once might have seemed OK aren’t OK anymore, and they regret their earlier behaviour. Expressions of regret often come with apologies for any distress caused. Frequently, being regretful is just another way of feeling sorry for ourselves. As one Harvard academic, accused of a pattern of sexual harassment, put it when confronted with the charge sheet: ‘Any behaviour like that, I would regret it under any circumstances.’ Regret is increasingly obligatory, which makes it increasingly hollow.
But what about the furious voters? Do they ever regret what they do? One of the oddities of the current ubiquity of regret is how little political purchase it has. Politicians may regret their personal behaviour when it catches them out. But they rarely, if ever, regret their public actions, which they have been trained to defend at all costs. No, Theresa May says, I don’t regret calling the election. I did what I thought was right and if I didn’t get the result I wanted, well that’s the voters’ right too. Tony Blair, on the publication of the Chilcot Report, expressed regret for some of the mistakes made in planning for the Iraq War (mistakes, by implication, made by others). But he could not regret the war itself and his decision to launch it. How could he? He still thought it was the right thing to do. Meanwhile, the voters who put Blair in office and who have turned on him since are rarely heard regretting their original decision. It wasn’t their fault he went on to behave the way he did. He let them down. The ballot box is not designed to serve as a confessional. It is a place where people go to express their anger at the behaviour of others.
Might referendums be different? When politicians decide to put a decision they would otherwise take on the public’s behalf in the hands of the voting public, they are not simply conceding the limits of their own authority. They are also placing limits on their own culpability. Does May regret the decision to leave the European Union? Unlike the decision to call an election, which was hers alone and therefore hers to stand or fall by, she treats this question as though it were essentially meaningless. What is there for her to regret since it was not her choice? It was the choice of the British people and it is her job to carry it out. This drives opponents of Brexit to distraction. If she won’t accept responsibility for the decision, but equally won’t accept that the voters have a right to change their minds, what chance is there to row back from what many, maybe including the prime minister herself, see as a terrible mistake? Answer: none.
That is the reason the search is on for a means that could allow the electorate to give voice to its regrets. If some way can be found for the people to think again it may be possible to revisit the original decision. Thinking again is in many ways the essence of democratic politics. It is what keeps the losers in the game: the knowledge that there is another election coming before too long means no course is ever fixed for good and no defeat need ever be permanent. The trouble with referendums is that this logic does not apply. Giving the people a chance to settle a momentous issue for a generation or more leaves the losers with nowhere to go. But if the result is close, and the issue as unsettled after the vote as it was before, why not think again? Why not have another referendum either to confirm or to overturn the result of the first?
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of having a second referendum on a question of this magnitude. Indeed, two-stage referendums are the model in some parts of the world, where it is considered right to ensure that the people do not decide in haste and repent at leisure. In New Zealand in 1992-93 a referendum on a potential change to the first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP) came in two stages: first a vote on whether people would prefer an alternative and if so which one; then a vote on whether they still preferred the chosen alternative to the status quo. In the first referendum there was an overwhelming majority for change and a strong preference for an option called the mixed member proportional system (MMP). In the second referendum, held a year later, MMP only narrowly defeated FPTP, which attracted a lot more support when it was up against a specific alternative. Nearly twenty years later the electorate was asked in another referendum if it was still happy with the decision made in 1993. It was, by a slightly bigger margin than before. Then a commission was convened to look at ways to improve MMP anyway. Not much room for regret there.
Unfortunately there are a number of reasons why this admirably rational model could not be used to revisit Brexit. In the New Zealand case, the idea of a second referendum was built into the first. That helps to explain why a much higher proportion of people was in favour of change the first time round: they knew they would have a chance to think again. To have a second referendum in order to ratify or overturn a result that was framed as definitive would be completely different. It may create the impression that the original decision, rather than being a mistake, was a sham. Making mistakes is an essential part of democratic politics, but treating elections as shams is not. Worse, with Brexit there is no option of a return to the status quo. The status quo has gone for good. For Britain to remain a member of the EU would require a new set of negotiations. It is true that the original vote merely offered us the status quo against some unspecified alternative (‘Leave’) and that specifying the alternative might well increase the attractiveness of the status quo, as happened in New Zealand. But the difficulty here is that there is no way to specify the alternative – to agree a deal, or to arrive at no deal – without consigning the status quo to oblivion.
That, though, is simply part of the wider problem, which is that the Brexit referendum was nothing like a referendum on a change to the voting system. When the British people were given a direct choice in 2011 whether or not to replace FPTP with AV it was within their power to make that change and, had they made it, it would have been within their power to reverse it at some future point if they were unhappy with the result. Parliament in that case could do the people’s bidding by legislating according to their instructions. But Brexit can’t work like that, whatever those charged with delivering it might say. Any instructions they have received are subject to negotiation with the remaining member states of the EU, and the outcome depends on what those states are willing to accept. The British people are not the final arbiters of Brexit and the referendum did nothing to fix its terms. We voted to begin a process over which the voters have no ultimate control. A second referendum would not be able to return us to where we started. It would simply be another negotiating move. Say there were a second referendum asking whether the British people were willing to accept the deal on the table and the people said ‘no’. What happens then is no more clear than what was meant to happen after the first vote. At that point, any decision to go back on the original referendum result would represent another leap into the unknown.
Critics of Brexit rightly mock the Churchillian aspirations of its diehard supporters, who see in it a chance for Britain to show what it’s made of by going it alone. We are likely to discover that going it alone in the 21st century just means getting buffeted by great power politics, over which we will have little influence. What happened in 1940 is irrelevant. But a decision to reverse the Brexit vote would still have serious consequences for national prestige and it is wishful to think otherwise. Churchill said in the darkest days of May 1940 that nations which go down fighting rise again, while those that surrender are finished. Even that turns out not to be true. Nations can survive most things. But it is true that the manner in which a decision is reached matters as much as the decision itself. Electorates that change their minds are wholly unremarkable. But nations that change their minds under stress are vulnerable to the charge that they can’t stick to their guns. No doubt the other member states of the EU would find a way to let us back in, but they would have every reason to strike a hard bargain. Saying ‘yes’ to Brexit followed by saying ‘no’ to Brexit is not the same as there being no Brexit. It is more like saying we don’t know what we want anymore. The perils of indecision would be a factor in any second referendum campaign. There is no way for the people to change their minds without being made to feel that they are offering another hostage to fortune.
For that reason, the focus of those who want to undo Brexit has been on persuading the people not that they were wrong first time round, but that they were duped. It wasn’t a mistake to vote for Brexit, any more than it was to vote for Blair. It was a case of being misled. We were sold a bill of goods. In How to Stop Brexit, Nick Clegg puts his money on anger rather than regret. ‘There’s a fairly simple rule in politics,’ he writes. ‘If you make a promise and then fail to deliver it, you should be held to account.’ To show he means it, he says he fully understands why the voters punished him and his party for failing to uphold their promise not to raise tuition fees (though, tellingly, he does not say he regrets the original decision, since he believes it was right). Almost the only thing on which supporters and opponents of Brexit can agree is that the campaign was a grisly affair, with the hard questions and serious challenges sidelined in favour of ludicrous promises and miserable threats. The losers might be able to park their embarrassment at having said things that weren’t true. But Clegg’s law of politics says that the winners should have to face the consequences. If there is to be no weekly infusion of cash into the NHS, if there can be no trade deal that leaves us better off than before, if we can’t control immigration without jeopardising economic prosperity, someone should answer for that. But who?
What makes a referendum different from a general election is that political parties are not the primary actors in the campaign. Political parties with any realistic prospect of power are kept relatively honest at general elections by the knowledge that their empty promises could come back to haunt them. Clegg’s career foundered on the fact that he couldn’t escape into the shadows of the coalition for ever; eventually the Lib Dems had to stand by their actions. Longstanding parties have hard-won reputations to defend. Vote Leave faced no such risk to its reputation because once the referendum was over it effectively ceased to exist. It is true that individual politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove will be pursued by some of their referendum pledges for as long as they are part of a government tasked with delivering on the result. But they have the advantage of being able to claim that the voters should judge them on their record in office, not their role as individuals in a multi-party referendum campaign. What’s more, we know this is an effective riposte, because the voters will do just that. In 2017 May called an election to ask the voters to empower her to deliver on the Brexit they had voted for. To do that, she said, she needed a big majority. But the voters were in no mood to be held to account for what they had done in the referendum. They wanted to judge the parties on their domestic agenda, and fox-hunting ended up playing a bigger role in the outcome than the Brexit negotiations. As a result, the election produced a hung parliament and a weak minority government, which makes delivering Brexit a nightmare.
A general election will not provide accountability for the choices made in a referendum. It can only provide accountability for the incumbent government. These are very different things. If May loses the next election because her government has fallen apart over Brexit that won’t tell us anything about the rightness or wrongness of the original referendum result. The government that replaces hers will be free to decide what to do next, on the basis of whatever promises it thinks it can afford to make. The voters will judge them on that. Clegg, like many opponents of Brexit, is caught between two irreconcilable facts about democratic politics. Electoral accountability is the mechanism for revisiting past mistakes. But electoral accountability does not hold in the case of referendums. This gap cannot be bridged by trying to force one kind of democracy into the other, no matter how hard we try.
The ultimate futility of Clegg’s position is revealed by his cheery but desperate suggestion that opponents of Brexit should join one of the two main parties – Tories or Labour, it doesn’t matter which, just not the Lib Dems, who don’t have a realistic prospect of making the crucial decisions – and apply pressure that way. It won’t work. First, a Lib Dem who argues that his supporters should join other parties to which they have no primary allegiance turns electoral democracy into a sham, which is one thing that never gets forgiven. Second, political parties are tribal. Remainers, whatever else they are, are not a political tribe. That’s the reason, come election time, Brexit will get squeezed as an issue by more basic loyalties. It’s what happened in 2017, and it will happen again. Clegg presents his case for joining parties to which you don’t belong as pragmatic realism. But really it’s simple idealism.
Since Clegg wrote his book, the mood of some of those who want to overturn the Brexit result has shifted from treating it as a con to seeing it as something like a criminal conspiracy. The recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica, and more specifically the expenditure by Vote Leave on work done by an obscure Canadian outfit called AIQ, has stoked the idea that the result was in some sense a corruption of democracy. Money was funnelled behind the scenes to experts in the manipulation of public opinion. This skewed the outcome. Maybe that is what happened. But even if it is, two different kinds of accountability are being jumbled up here as well. If officials at Vote Leave broke the rules for campaign finance set by the electoral commission, those concerned can be held to account in law, with more or less serious consequences for them as individuals. How serious, frankly, depends not just on what can be pinned on whom but also on the price they might have thought worth paying for getting the UK out of the EU. If it means they are disqualified from playing any part in a future referendum campaign some of them would be happy to live with that. They don’t have political careers to defend. This vote was the one they wanted to win. Jailing its architects will not change the result. On the other hand, if the real anger is being driven by the thought that voters were targeted with online messages that fed their prejudices and swayed the outcome, then that, I’m afraid, is the way politics works these days. The way to beat it is to do it better. No doubt, with hindsight, the Remain campaign wishes it had done it better, just as the Tories must wish they had done it better in 2017, having done it very effectively in 2015. The Tories will get another chance to show they have learned the lessons of their most recent failure soon enough, but referendum campaigns don’t get a chance to do that. This was the one to win.
Is there any way to stop Brexit? Of course. But it will have to come about as a side-effect of conventional electoral politics. One way it could happen would be if no Brexit deal was able to pass the House of Commons and no party committed to trying to pass a deal was able to form a government or to win a general election on a pro-Brexit platform. We know that the large majority of MPs are opposed to Brexit. It wouldn’t take many Conservatives to switch sides on a vote on the final deal to bring down the May government, on the assumption that Labour would take any chance it could to precipitate such an outcome. At that point whether anyone had the stomach to plough on with Brexit would be an open question. Because stopping Brexit will never be the same as undoing it, this would be a change of course rather than a revisiting of the original result of the referendum. The Brexit negotiations wouldn’t end, but they might well move in a very different direction.
That scenario is possible. But it is not very plausible. The problem is that conventional electoral politics has its own logic, much of it determined by our antiquated FPTP system. MPs from the two main parties are primarily incentivised to stick together in the hope of winning a parliamentary majority. As things stand, despite the personal preferences of many MPs, each party has a better chance of sticking together if it stays the course with Brexit than if it reverses it. A commitment to strike out in a new direction means taking explicit political responsibility for what happens next, with all the divisions that would entail, whereas going along with the referendum result defers that moment of accountability. Labour’s strategic fudge on Brexit in 2017 worked so well because it meant that the party was only responsible to the electorate for its domestic programme. The big question of the day wasn’t for them. MPs who don’t like Brexit may well suck it up so long as the referendum result continues to allow them to avoid primary responsibility. When it comes to the crunch in the Commons the politically safe option could be to do the reckless thing and plough on, because the recklessness can be pinned on someone else.
The other factor that is bound to give all MPs pause is their lingering suspicion that they are profoundly out of touch with the country they claim to represent. The only way they will find out if this is true is at an election and next time round they may be reluctant to take any chances. A series of electoral shocks – the general election of 2015, the Brexit vote, the general election of 2017, not to mention the transatlantic tremors caused by the election of Trump – has left all professional politicians looking over their shoulders. The fact that MPs are overwhelmingly against Brexit is a reason for them to be hesitant about seeking to stop it, for fear they could once again be setting themselves up as targets for the wrath of the voters. No one knows when Brexit might rear its head as an electoral issue, because no one knows anything at the moment. That feeling of groping in the dark will keep both main parties clinging to what little they can see in front of them for as long as they can.
There is at least one good reason for thinking that this fear of the unknown is well founded. Parliament has become a fundamentally unrepresentative body. The Brexit referendum revealed a country deeply divided on a number of measures that cut across party ties. One was age: the old, left as well as right, were far more likely to vote for Brexit than the young. But another division, just as pronounced, was education: whether or not someone had gone to university was one of strongest indicators of voting behaviour in the referendum (just under 70 per cent of university graduates voted Remain). Yet a degree has become something close to an entry requirement for a political career at Westminster. A large majority of MPs are now graduates (with only a few exceptions, the Brexit-sympathising Corbyn being one), along with a near monopoly of their advisers and civil servants. On many questions – health, housing, welfare, education itself, even fox-hunting – this might not matter because public opinion divides on grounds other than education. But on Brexit it means Parliament risks making a judgment it is not democratically qualified to make, because it doesn’t represent the diversity of public opinion. That makes it possible that the voters will seek their revenge. Another possibility is that they won’t – perhaps because they have changed their minds – but that their politicians, unnerved by their ignorance of what many of their constituents are thinking, will never actually give them the chance. An unrepresentative democratic assembly could run roughshod over public opinion. But it is just as likely to be spooked by its shadow.
These divisions suggest one other way Brexit might come unstuck: the passage of time. Clegg is explicit in blaming old people for the referendum result and he hopes that with each passing month the cohort will diminish as death does its work. Given the relative closeness of the result, he believes public opinion should soon tip back the other way. On one level this is a basic error of arithmetic. Britain has a progressively ageing population because life expectancy continues to rise, even though the rate of increase has dramatically slowed (it hasn’t, yet, gone into reverse, as it has in the United States, where the opioid epidemic and other catastrophic social failures are winnowing the Trump-supporting classes). With each passing month, there are slightly more old people in the UK voting population, not fewer. It’s true that these aren’t the same old people who voted in 2016. So the question is whether new entrants to the cohort of the elderly retain their commitment to a more liberal outlook. There is some cause for thinking that they might, though this will be slow work. For example, because the expansion of university education is a phenomenon of the last fifty years, and the last twenty years in particular, the proportion of the population in possession of a degree is growing all the time. If a university education helps shape a lifetime’s political outlook, the prospects for a continuing majority for Brexit should become progressively dimmer. With no majority support, the project loses its legitimacy.
But whatever Clegg might say, this is a faint hope. It will take a long time to work through decisively. It is also just one change among many, and others may pull in a different direction. Nothing stands still after the referendum result. It is a mistake to treat the event as though it took place in a political vacuum, so that letting in a bit of air might alter the outcome while leaving everything else unaffected. Having made the decision, the primary factor affecting voters’ behaviour will be their view of what comes next, not of what went before. A broadly liberal outlook will have to contend with a wide range of more immediate political concerns, including the pull of other promises made and anger with other promises broken. Above all, Remain instincts will come up against tribal party loyalties at election time. As we saw in 2017, that can play havoc with the dividing lines established in the referendum campaign. What people think of Brexit is a hostage to political fortunes as much as it is a determinant of them.
For that reason, the likeliest way to overturn the referendum result is to wait until one party or other has taken clear ownership of its consequences. For that to happen, Brexit has to happen too. It is possible that at some point a second referendum will be appropriate, once a new status quo has been established, to see whether people would prefer an alternative. Until then, however, conventional electoral politics will have to decide our collective fate. It makes sense to regret that the referendum happened in the first place. But there is nothing to be gained by regretting the result. No one takes responsibility that way. It is still perfectly possible that Brexit won’t happen as its champions would like, if it gets snagged by parliamentary arithmetic. But for anyone to undo Brexit, someone is going to have to do it first.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.