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The case for holding a second Brexit referendum

Meet the group that wants to call “Bracksies” on Brexit.

People’s Vote Protesters March On Parliament
A People’s Vote demonstration in London on June 23, 2016.
Photo by Simon Dawson/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted 52 to 48 to leave the European Union. That close, and somewhat shocking, vote instigated the current political chaos in Britain, as a bitterly divided country grapples with exactly how to break up with the EU ahead of the March 29, 2019, deadline.

But there’s one thing almost everyone in Britain agrees on: Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal is really bad. Those who favor a hard Brexit hate it because it doesn’t offer a definitive split with the EU, and those who’d prefer to remain in the EU loath it because they see the status quo as better.

The solution to this political impasse? For some, it’s to go back to where this all started — and hold another vote on Brexit.

The idea has been percolating in Britain over the past few months, and support for it is growing as the standoff over May’s Brexit proposal raises the possibility that the UK could crash out of the EU with no deal at all.

People’s Vote UK is the grassroots organization that’s leading the campaign to hold a second Brexit referendum. The group formed in April 2018, bringing a bunch of pro-EU groups together for a common cause.

It’s not calling for a simple do-over of the 2016 referendum — a vote to leave or remain in the EU. Instead, the group wants to give UK voters a chance to vote between May’s deal or remaining in the EU.

There’s no guarantee a second vote will happen. May has resisted holding another referendum, implying that it’s undemocratic and merely a chance for those disappointed in the 2016 referendum to get a different answer now. But given the unpredictability of British politics right now, there’s always a chance it could happen.

To learn more, I called up Barney Scholes, the press officer for the People’s Vote UK. I asked him to lay out the case for holding another referendum, and why the campaign believes another vote is the best solution to Brexit.

A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Jen Kirby

How did People’s Vote UK form?

Barney Scholes

The People’s Vote campaign is a number of different pro-European organizations that were working since the Brexit vote, but often with slightly different messages, slightly different campaign strategies, slightly different end objectives.

In April of this year those groups came together to form the People’s Vote campaign with the singular overall objective of securing a people’s vote on the Brexit deal.

Jen Kirby

Is your lobbying effort focused on convincing members of Parliament to support a people’s vote, or is it more geared toward outreach to the general public?

Barney Scholes

It really has to be both. A lot of this debate is happening in Parliament, so we have an outreach program to members of Parliament [MPs]. We have a lot of MPs who are supportive of the campaign, who go out and do media interventions on our behalf, who do speeches, who do rallies.

But it wouldn’t work without grassroots pressure, so we have groups all over the country that are engaging in their community. They’re handing out leaflets, they’re setting up street stores, they’re speaking to members of the community about Brexit.

We’ve also organized a series of rallies and larger events and marches. We had two marches: one in June, where we had over 100,000 people out, and then another one in October, where we actually had over 700,000 people out, which is the largest political march in the UK since the Iraq War march [in 2003].

On the one hand, the Brexit debate is at the moment very focused in Parliament, but there is a real feeling across the country that this Brexit process is a real mess. Nobody is happy with where this is going, whether you voted Leave or Remain in 2016. It’s looking inevitable that a people’s vote is going to be the way to break the gridlock.

Jen Kirby

You say “inevitable.” Support for a second referendum comes from across the political spectrum, but there’s no consensus yet. What is the pathway toward a people’s vote that you’re envisioning now?

Barney Scholes

There are a few different routes to get there. The government now has a Brexit deal. It was originally due to bring that to a vote in Parliament on December 11, which was then pulled because the government knew they were going to lose by a big number. [Theresa May announced Monday that the vote would be scheduled for January 14.]

The deal should be voted down in Parliament. There’s no majority in Parliament in favor of that deal. There’s no majority in Parliament in favor of any form of Brexit at this stage. There’s no certainly no majority for a no-deal Brexit.

There is real Parliamentary gridlock here. There doesn’t seem to be any way through it. So our view is, once the government’s withdrawal agreement is voted down in Parliament, we can then build the majority in Parliament for a people’s vote.

Jen Kirby

As you say, right now the vote on the Brexit deal is expected to take place in January. That’s about two months before the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019. How do you pull off a people’s vote in that time?

Barney Scholes

We don’t have a long tradition of referendums in the UK, so there’s no real definite structure for how they should take place. In theory, they can happen very quickly. There’s nothing to stop Parliament from voting in a matter of days to put legislation in place for a referendum.

It is certainly possible that it would require an extension of Article 50 — the provision of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that says a member-state can leave unilaterally. But based on everything the EU has said, it seems pretty clear to us there wouldn’t be any problems with getting a short extension to Article 50, as long as it was for the specific business of holding a referendum on the Brexit deal.

Jen Kirby

So the people’s vote, as your campaign sees it, would be a choice between May’s deal and staying in the EU? Those two options will likely displease hard Brexiteers.

Barney Scholes

Our preferred option, as you rightly say, is a straight choice between the actual Brexit deal that’s been negotiated — so the government’s deal — versus our current deal as EU members. That’s the most straightforward way to allow people to make a clear choice between two real, tangible options on offer.

I think part of the problem with the 2016 referendum was that you had one option, staying in the EU, that was a clear, tangible thing. You could look at the UK’s membership in the EU and see the upsides and downsides. Whereas the other side, leave, was deliberately very ambiguous on what form “Leave” would actually take. That allowed people to project whatever they wanted on to “Leave.”

The best way to address that in a people’s vote would be to say, “Okay, you voted for Brexit, in 2016. The government has gone away with that mandate and on your behalf has negotiated a Brexit deal that you can now see on paper. The withdrawal agreement is obviously a very long and tedious document, but you can read it and you can compare that to your current status as members of the EU and decide which you prefer.”

As you say, there are other options that are floating around. [MP] Justine Greening, for example, has talked about a three-way referendum where a no-deal Brexit is also on the table. Our view is that no-deal is an absolute disaster for the UK, and that a responsible Parliament shouldn’t allow that to be an option. But ultimately it will be up to Parliament to decide what the question on the ballot paper should be.

Jen Kirby

Theresa May has resisted a second referendum, basically saying it would be undemocratic and that the country has already voted and she’s delivering on the will of the people. How do you respond to that?

Barney Scholes

The first thing I would say is that it’s impossible to undo democracy by having more democracy. We’re asking for a democratic vote of the entire country to decide whether they want this Brexit deal or not.

More broadly, if you go and buy a house, you might initially suggest that you’re happy to pay the offer price because they promise you it’s a castle on the hill with nine swimming pools. Then you go and look at it, and it’s actually a shack in the field with no roof. You’re not obligated to pay the price you initially suggested, because what you’re being offered is completely different from what you were promised.

We think this really resonates with people: What’s being delivered to you is completely different than what was promised. And I think everybody is in agreement about that, both Remainers and Leavers. The most pro-Brexit elements of the Conservative Party are absolutely up in the arms about this deal because they think it’s a betrayal of Brexit.

There’s nothing undemocratic about asking people to look at the terms on offer to them. Look at the deal that’s being delivered, decide for themselves whether they are happy with it. Not allow political leaders in Westminster to force it on the country. To allow the whole country to have a say. For me, that’s the most democratic thing you can possibly imagine.

Jen Kirby

Few expected “Leave” to win in 2016. It did. What if this referendum doesn’t come out as you hope?

Barney Scholes

That’s democracy, that’s the way it works. If we get a people’s vote that’s a choice between Theresa May’s deal and the deal we have now as EU member-states, I can’t guarantee 100 percent that Remain would win. Obviously I hope it would.

But if the British people decide that what they want is Theresa May’s Brexit deal, then that’s absolutely fine. Those are the democratic wishes of the British people. I don’t think anyone, certainly not me, would argue with that. But they’ll be going into it knowing full well the terms being delivered, what the upsides and downsides will be.

Jen Kirby

I’m struggling with this idea that this people’s vote is still going to leave a huge chunk of the country very, very unhappy. Some people may have started to realize that, with Brexit, instead of a castle on a hill, they’re getting a shack. But not everyone. A lot of people really do want to split up with the EU, even if means a painful no-deal.

Barney Scholes

We’re a very divided society at the moment. Brexit has really exposed those divisions quite starkly, so I’m not going to pretend I think a people’s vote is going to solve all of those problems. I don’t think it will.

I do think that if you force through a Brexit with which almost nobody is happy, that will do absolutely nothing — in fact, it will make the divisions much worse.

I think with a people’s vote, we can at least start to try and coalesce people around a direction for the country. I’m not saying that will please everyone. You’re right to say there will obviously be people who will feel very disappointed if there is a people’s vote and the vote is to Remain. But I think when you have a series of not-great options at this point, a people’s vote is the best option by quite a long way.

Jen Kirby

Do you, in your activism, encounter a lot of regretful Leavers, or Remain converts?

Barney Scholes

There are certainly polls that show there has been a swing toward Remain. It’s not a huge swing. There’s a group we work with quite closely, Remainer Now, that feels what is being delivered doesn’t match up to what they were promised and have changed their minds about Brexit.

I’m not pretending that suddenly Remain is polling at like 70 or 80 percent or something. But I think it’s pretty clear that the mood of the country is swinging in our direction, and I think that’s the result of the fact that, like I said, pretty much nobody is happy with where this process has taken us, whether you voted Remain or Leave in 2016.

Theresa May wants to present her deal as the “will of the people” and say this is what people were voting for when they were voting for Brexit. There’s zero evidence for that. The only way to clarify that is to actually ask people again: “Do you agree with the direction that we’re going with this, or have you had a change of heart since 2016?”