Opinion: upholding the result of the 2016 referendum on Britain leaving the EU matters politically - and morally 

By Donnchadh O’Conaill, University of Fribourg Switzerland

Almost since the result of the Brexit referendum was announced, there has been talk of a second referendum or even of scrapping the withdrawal process altogether. In thinking about this issue, it is important to distinguish two questions: what should have happened in June 2016, and what should be done now.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made that the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was unwise. But given the result and what has happened since, there is a strong case against either revoking Article 50 or holding a second referendum.

The basic argument is extremely simple: the electorate were given a choice, were told that their decision would be respected and voted by a narrow (though not tiny) margin to leave. In a later general election, both Labour and the Conservatives ran on manifestos promising that they would implement the result of the referendum. Between them, they won 82% of the vote. So to the result of the referendum itself can be added to promises made both before and after 2016 to respect the result and to leave the EU.

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Neither the referendum result nor these promises were legally binding. But they matter politically, and they matter morally. Morally, it is prima facie the right thing to respect the result of a democratic vote – those who wish to overturn it or re-run the vote before the result can be implemented have to show that there is a compelling reason to do so.

Last year, Ireland held an historic referendum on abortion. During the campaign, the government pledged to introduce legislation significantly liberalising Ireland’s abortion regime in the event of the vote being in favour of amending the constitution. This pledge was not legally binding. Nor, strictly speaking, was the result of the referendum itself a vote to legalise abortion – it was a vote to allow the Oireachtas to legislate. But the referendum was widely understood as not only concerning the powers of the Oireachtas, but as a vote for or against a more liberal regime.

Imagine if the result of the referendum had been much closer - say, 52% in favour, as with Brexit in the UK. And imagine if the government, for whatever reason, had decided that it was not, after all, going to introduce the promised legislation. Instead, after some delay, it announced that another referendum would have to be held before the legislation would be brought forward. 

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Whatever your views on the issue of abortion itself, this kind of manoeuvre should surely strike you as sharp practice. The government would not only have reneged on its promise – it would have chosen to overrule what would have been widely regarded as a vote on whether the abortion regime should be liberalised. It would have accepted the letter of the result while refusing to accept the spirit.

A second referendum on Brexit would in some respects be even worse than this. In the imaginary scenario described above, the government could implement the result of the referendum (since amending the constitution would not by itself require legislating). A second referendum on Brexit, before the UK had left the EU, would require refusing to implement the result of the first. 

It is one thing to have agreed beforehand that the result of the referendum would not be implemented without a second popular vote once negotiations on the terms of the UK’s departure had been concluded. But it is quite another to subsequently request a second popular vote before implementing what was decided first time around. Apart from anything else, this would set an extremely worrying precedent. Any vote, whether in a general election or a referendum, would be in danger of being merely provisional, subject to post hoc demands for further confirmation. 

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It has been suggested that there is nothing undemocratic about holding a second referendum on the same substantive issue. Indeed, allowing the electorate to revise their previous decisions is a crucial part of modern democracy. In Ireland, this has happened more than once. The Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon were each accepted on a second vote, having been rejected the first time around. 

But these examples were crucially different to the debate concerning a second Brexit referendum. In each of the Irish votes, the result of the first referendum was implemented: Ireland did not ratify a treaty and her legal relationship with Europe did not change. For the analogy to hold, the UK government would have to hold a referendum on rejoining the EU after having left. The problem with holding a second referendum before leaving is not that the government would disagree with the initial vote to leave, but that they would refuse to deliver what the electorate had been promised, before and after that initial vote. 

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There is a potentially stronger argument in favour of revoking Article 50: that the referendum was undermined by illegal campaigning activity. The UK Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office have each issued a number of fines to campaigning organisations for overspending and other breaches of electoral rules.

In principle, the illegality might turn out to have been at such a level that the result should be nullified. However, given what is public knowledge at present, it is difficult to make the case that a referendum won by more than a million votes was compromised to this extent. In the absence of major new revelations, the referendum should be regarded as a valid, though flawed, democratic exercise – and as such, there is a strong case for its result to be respected.

Dr Donnchadh O’Conaill is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Fribourg Switzerland


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ