Caitlin Logan: Remainers should beware the consequences of a ‘People’s Vote’

Ben Wray

Writer Caitlin Logan says there may be more to lose than gain from a second EU referendum

AS SOMEONE who, without hesitation, voted to ‘Remain’ two and half years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of my own thoughts on the slow motion car-crash that is Brexit and the prospect of a ‘People’s Vote’. 

It’s evident that the political class has been caught completely unawares by the outcome of a referendum that David Cameron agreed to hold to appease the more right-wing elements of his own party – and the response has been nothing short of shambolic on all sides. 

Now, the SNP and the Scottish Greens have officially joined the Liberal Democrats in calling for a repeat of the Brexit vote, and 700,000 people – including many Labour members – marched in support of this aim over the weekend. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is hiding in a bunker somewhere waiting for this all to be over.

Well, perhaps I’ve been hiding in a bunker of my own, but I’m choosing this moment to come out and say it: I don’t think a second EU referendum is a good idea.

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To clarify a few points: I voted to stay in the EU because I believe in the free movement of people and that borders are merely lines that have been drawn by the people with power that most of us will never have access to.

I voted to remain because I believe in countries working together to agree a high set of standards for human rights, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability, none of which should depend on where a person lives.

I also voted for the equally important side-benefit of not giving any extra powers to a right-wing, elitist government who’d certainly use them nefariously.

I knew when I cast my vote that there was a huge amount wrong with the EU establishment; I’ve rarely met an establishment without a huge amount wrong with it, and the bigger the institution, the harder those problems are to undo. There is a massive imbalance of power among the EU’s member states, and supporting business interests and a global capitalist economy has undoubtedly become the primary driving force in its agenda. 

Much has been said since the Brexit vote of the EU as a protector of human rights and international harmony, and this is certainly an ideal worth aspiring to. The evidence, on the other hand, makes it very difficult to argue that this is, at least presently, its core function.

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While EU rules have boosted UK workers’ rights in some ways, they’ve also placed limitations on states’ ability to introduce higher standards in public procurement because of the prioritisation of the freedom of movement of services.

When the EU had the opportunity to stand for human rights in the face of state violence in Catalonia, it stood instead on the side of power.

And Greece is still recovering from EU-imposed austerity, which came in direct opposition to the democratic will of the Greek people. Now it looks like Italy may be in for the same treatment – a move which is almost certain to spawn further disharmony in a country which elected Western Europe’s first right-wing populist government earlier this year.

Even taking Brexit out of the mix, the EU is in crisis, and to ignore that state of affairs would be foolish. However, I don’t believe that the UK leaving – for all the wrong reasons – helps that situation.

I don’t believe Europe, the world, or the UK will be a better place as a result of Brexit, and I do think that the nature of the Brexit campaign and the UKIP/Tory Brexit vision turning back the clock to the good old days of the British Empire and to a culturally, racially monolithic Britain is deeply shameful. 

I’m ultimately unconvinced by, although sympathetic to, the ‘Lexit’ arguments for leaving the EU, because I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for how, in the remotely foreseeable future, we can expect to maintain (at a bare minimum) the current standard of freedom of movement, as well as international cooperation, without the European Union.

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For multiple reasons, I wouldn’t have voted for Brexit in 2016 and the picture now convinces me even more that I made the right choice. I made the choice based on what I saw as the likely outcomes and the least-worst scenario.

All of that being said, it is now on that very same basis that I can’t get my head around the idea of a second Brexit vote. I just can’t – try as I might – truly believe in a scenario where that makes this situation better. 

One of the arguments for the new referendum is that people did not know what they were voting for first time around and that now that the outcome is going to be so patently awful, they’d change their mind. However, I’m not so sure this is the case for as many people as the People’s Voters might hope – unsurprisingly, it’s people who already voted to Remain who are far more likely to back another vote.

Shifts in the polls towards Remain have been indecisive, particularly when likely turnout is taken into consideration – many ‘new’ Remain supporters are those who didn’t vote the first time around, but could we be certain that an adequate portion of those sympathetic to Remain in England and Wales would turn out to tip the scales?

If we’re really honest with ourselves, how many of us are genuinely surprised by the way things have turned out? If people really wanted to leave, I doubt that seeing how hard it is for the UK to come to an agreement with the EU, or how desperately Remainers are trying to convince them that the End of Days is approaching is going to be what sways them.

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If another referendum took place and yielded the same results, we would simply see divisions further entrenched, Leave voters further alienated from establishment politics, and the UK further embarrassed on the world stage – and all for nought.

Scotland already voted to Remain by 62 per cent – why should we vote again and expect not to be ignored the second time around, and, equally, why should we ask that the votes of the majority in England and Wales who did vote to Leave should be ignored now?

I fear that the people driving this campaign are fatally misunderstanding the political moment in which they find themselves. Whatever we might think of the Leave campaign’s tactics and messaging, a deep sense of antipathy towards the current political and economic system allowed it to succeed, and much of that antipathy has been well-earned.

Addressing that crisis of democracy will take a lot of listening and a lot of doing politics differently. In an ideal world, we could be doing just that while remaining in the EU, but pushing forward with a rehash of a referendum because those of us who ‘know better’ didn’t like the result seems like exactly the wrong response if we ever expect that sense of anger and disenfranchisement to subside.

From what I have observed of the people fronting the People’s Vote campaign in England, I have little faith that a second Remain campaign would go any ways at all to answering the concerns of those who voted to Leave or to presenting an image that appears like anything less than the self-absorbed ‘London Elite’ that the Leave campaign always said they were.

Perhaps that sounds like an unfair generalisation, but campaigns are built on unfair generalisations, and if you doubt for a minute that people would find it convincing, you have not been paying attention to the global political mood.

I know that many of the people backing a second referendum are anything but elite and that they too have very real concerns, including those regarding the future rights of EU citizens. I would not for a second downplay the gravity of those.

Equally, I could not overstate the depth of the damage caused by eight years of a Conservative UK Government, and I have serious issues with the electoral system which grants them so much power – but as long as that system remains, and as long as people vote for the Tories, it is a defining feature of a democracy that while we certainly don’t need to like election results, we do need to accept them.

You have to respond to the reality you find yourself in, and unless I am convinced that a sizeable number of people in England and Wales have really ‘changed their minds’ and that there is a real, grassroots democratic desire for another Brexit vote, I think there will be more to lose than gain from trying to make it so.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, we will keep having election results and referendum results which are so vastly out of step with the rest of the UK as to make the continuation of a political union antidemocratic in practice. That is the reality we find ourselves in, and if we in Scotland want to be in the EU so badly, there’s an obvious solution to the conundrum.

Picture courtesy of Ashley Van Haeften