Over a year since the EU referendum in 2016, there are still persistent calls, mainly from the Remain side, to “re-run” the referendum, or even have a “confirmation vote” on the final deal. Some use the words of the Brexit Minister, David Davis, as proof that a second referendum would be democratic:
“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
— David Davis
The idea that the election can just be re-run is a fundamental misunderstanding of how western democracy works. Of course electorates are able to change their minds. However they have never been able to change their minds at any time.
All public votes, in order to be democratic, must be implemented. This means that if the public votes for something, then that ballot paper selection must be applied. In general elections, this normally involves a peaceful transition of power to the winning side, who then gain the right to implement their agenda. In referendums, it falls to the incumbent ruler to implement the result, or stand aside for someone who will.
In the United Kingdom, all elections, whether general election or referendum, are implemented. However as soon as implementation is carried out, the public have a democratic right to change their mind, and kick out the incumbent ruling party.
Let’s take a recent example. In the 1997 UK General Election, Tony Blair won a landslide election victory against the ruling Conservative Party. After the votes were counted and it was confirmed that Blair had won, a democratic process of implementation was started.
Vote implementation involved Blair forming a government, as the people had advised he should. There was no opportunity for the people to vote again before Blair formed his government. A re-run of the vote was not an option the day after the 1997 general election (or any other election for that matter). Calls for such a vote by the Conservatives, would’ve likely been described as an undemocratic Tory power-grab by the still to be appointed Labour administration, as it is standard convention in western democracies for election results to be honoured and implemented.
However democracy does say that we can change our minds after initial implementation of the vote. So after Blair formed his government, it could be challenged and removed democratically (by vote of no confidence, for example, or even a rejection of the Queen’s Speech), at which point the electorate would be asked to vote again.
Remainers also often make the argument that because the 2016 referendum was advisory, then it can be overturned with another vote. Although they are correct in that the vote did not bind parliament, they are incorrect in that this in itself would be a democratic act. Political history has shown us that democracy mandates an implementation of the result of any vote, be it referendum, general election, or advisory vote. The peaceful transition of power is a key part of the democratic process, and it is Remainers who are still trying to wrestle control of the agenda and refusing to concede an electoral loss, despite comprehensively losing.
Remainers in this regard are also being incredibly hypocritical. In October 2016, when Donald Trump refused to say if he’d concede the Presidential election if he lost the vote, he was met with howls of outrage from genuinely democratic people on the left and right. His proposed refusal to accept the democratic vote was described as “unprecedented and chilling” by the press. The Fox news presenter interviewing Trump, Chris Wallace, said that: “There is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power. And no matter how hard fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner.” This is not solely a US tradition – it is an integral part of the democratic process. A process that Remainers once believed in when criticising Trump, but now cast aside when calling for another EU referendum vote.
The UK’s electoral history is littered with examples of votes being implemented. For example, every General Election we’ve had has been implemented, with the largest parties being invited to form governments. Multiple referendums, including the referendum to remain in the EEC in 1975 have also been implemented.
There are also a few modern examples of where elections have not been implemented, for example the Greek Bailout referendum in 2015. In that vote, the “No” side polled over 60%, yet they were completely ignored. At the time, this was described by Mario Monti, former Italian leader and European Commissioner, as “a violation of democracy”, due to the vote not being implemented.
Calls to re-run our 2016 EU referendum before it is implemented are similarly undemocratic, and would set a dangerous precedent in the UK that votes can just be ignored. Convention demands that the vote is implemented, and that we leave the EU. However democracy also says that if there is demand, we can vote between different flavours of leaving the EU, and in time could always vote to rejoin after leaving.