25 March 2019

The ‘People’s Vote’ mask has slipped


As the crisis in Westminster deepens, the campaigners working to make sure Brexit never happens are surely feeling more bullish than at any time since the 2016 referendum.

If you have managed to circumvent the mainstream media’s nefarious efforts to stop you from hearing about it, you will know that the insurgency is gaining momentum. A million people joined an anti-Brexit march in central London on Saturday, while a petition on the issue has received more than five million signatures in the last week.

But for all that the protest and petition are seen as complementary, their stated goals are actually contradictory.

The placard-wavers in London were, according to the organisers, calling for Brexit to be put to the people in a second referendum. The petition demands something simpler – and less democratic. It says that Article 50 should be revoked altogether, arguing: “The government repeatedly claims exiting the EU is ‘the will of the people’. We need to put a stop to this claim by providing the strength of public support now, for remaining in the EU. A People’s Vote may not happen – so vote now.”

What does the Stop Brexit campaign want? The answer, obviously, is to keep Britain in the EU. But that is not something the continuity Remain campaign have always wanted voters to know.

For the last few years, the argument of Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry or whatever Remain-supporter has been been put on TV to make the case for a second referendum went something like this: “I’ve been open about my views on Brexit. I think leaving the European Union is a very bad idea. But my support for a people’s vote isn’t based on my views. It’s based on the principle that the voters are better informed now than they were in 2016 and deserve a final say on the Prime Minister’s deal.”

Of course, the arguments varied. Some claimed that a re-run was necessary because of the myth that Leave somehow had an unfair advantage in the 2016 vote. Or that under-18s deserved a say. Or because “the facts have changed”. Or because of something written on the side of a bus.

Others indulged in morbid demographic arbitrage: old Leave voters were dying, young Remainers were turning 18, so the majority for Brexit was diminishing.

Whatever you think of these claims – “not much” would be my two-word assessment – they are all questions of process. They are arguments about why voters should have another say – and ones you could theoretically make regardless of how you would vote in that referendum. (Even if, in practice, not a single soul in the People’s Vote campaign was a Leave voter, or appeared to have ever met one.)

Claims that their calls for another vote were actually just about keeping Britain in the EU were almost always met with righteous indignation.

As recently as September 2018, the prominent second-referendum campaigner Gina Miller objected to being described by journalists as someone who wanted to “stop Brexit”. Fast forward to March 2019: last week Miller said of the petition to revoke Article 50 without another referendum, “How can the politicians ignore this!”

Suddenly, process doesn’t seem quite so important. The mask has slipped.

To return to the wording of the petition, the circumvention of democracy it proposes rests on the claim that “a people’s vote may not happen”. In fact, another vote on EU membership has never looked more likely, with the possibility of a long extension opening up a big enough window to hold such a vote, and Labour increasingly of the view that any deal should be confirmed in a subsequent referendum.

Of course, such a poll “may not happen” — but that is a logical fig leaf, half-heartedly included in the wording of the petition.

The truth that second-referendum activists are interested in anything other than stopping Brexit is now undeniable. Tellingly, you will struggle to find a People’s Vote campaigner arguing against the revocation of Article 50 without a second referendum on the grounds that it would be undemocratic.

With no end to the Brexit impasse in sight, the calls for a second referendum will grow louder in the coming weeks and months. But that campaign was built on a lie — that a ‘People’s Vote’ was ever about anything other than than cancelling Brexit, by any means possible.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.