In the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit decision, I was initially sceptical about the idea of having another referendum; although disappointed with the outcome, I found myself agreeing, albeit grudgingly, with those who claimed that a second referendum would not respect the democratic choice that had been made. However, three years have passed. Circumstances have changed. We now have a (somewhat) clearer idea of what Brexit may eventually look like (and, more importantly, what it is probably not going to provide); but Parliament remains in a political stalemate and there is no consensus for any individual Brexit deal. A second vote looks more likely; perhaps this is what is needed to solve the Brexit conundrum, whether or not Parliament can agree on a deal and regardless of the outcome of such a referendum.

Theresa May urged MPs in December not to “break faith with the British people by trying to stage another referendum.” Referendums most certainly have their flaws, and they have been criticised ever since appearing in their earliest form in the 5th century BC Athenian version of democracy. But if we accept that the 2016 referendum was ‘democratic’ then we must consider why a second one would be any less so. Democracy is surely best served if the choice is an informed one, which reflects the views of the electorate as accurately as possible at any given time. A second referendum would accomplish this.

The concept of holding a second referendum on the same issue is not without precedent; it dates back to the ancient world and has occurred in many countries. Ireland’s laws state that any treaty affecting its constitution must be put to popular vote. Twice in recent history – with the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 – Irish voters have rejected EU treaties in referendums. In both cases, a second vote was held a year later, with the opposite outcome. Likewise, Denmark’s people initially rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, but subsequently voted in favour of the amended treaty when another referendum was held the following year.

"To hold a second referendum could be both democratic and respectful of the result in 2016"

Referendums are, however, relatively uncommon in the UK; in Switzerland, it is obligatory to hold a referendum on any proposal which gathers over 100,000 signatures (in the UK, this would mean only that Parliament would consider such a proposal for debate). If we followed this example, the six million signatures on the petition to revoke Article 50, the recent march in London and other such demands for a second referendum would clearly indicate the need to put the matter formally to the electorate again.

To hold a second referendum could be both democratic and respectful of the result in 2016.  Much has changed since then, including the information we now possess about the eventual shape of Brexit. A democratic choice should be an informed choice. In April, the result of a referendum in Switzerland was invalidated by the country’s supreme court for the first time in history, because voters had been insufficiently informed on the issue in question. We need not go that far. However, during the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexit was a somewhat nebulous concept. Individuals had their own visions of what Brexit might look like, many of which have since proved unlikely to materialise. If, at some point in the near future, there is agreement on (or at least significant parliamentary support for) a proposed deal, people must be given a chance to express their informed opinion as to whether to accept that actual deal – the tangible face of Brexit – or to remain in the EU.

Opponents of a second referendum cite its potential destructive and divisive effects, but the damage has already been done by the 2016 referendum - the tensions and divisions in society that it brought to the surface and the resulting political crisis. In fact, uncertainty may worsen the situation.

Of course, a second referendum may produce the same result as the first; this is also not without precedent. The Canadian province of Quebec has twice held referendums (in 1980 and 1995) on independence from Canada, both of which resulted in separatist defeats. The margin of the vote narrowed, but the result remained the same, and there has been no third referendum. If a Brexit deal is approved in a referendum, this will give the government a clear mandate to carry out the deal with popular support.

The insistence that the result in 2016 remains the “will of the people” rests on the presumption that such a “will” is static. In fact, democracy relies on the frequent consultation of citizens, by which they can demonstrate their shifts in opinion; if this is true for elections, it must also be true for referendums. It is contradictory to argue simultaneously that the “will of the people” must be obeyed and that a second referendum would be undemocratic.

"Democracy relies on the frequent consultation of citizens, by which they can demonstrate their shifts in opinion"

Even the “people” themselves are not the same as the electorate in 2016. According to ONS data, roughly 2.3 million people have turned 18 in the past three years. Many of us were too young to vote in 2016, and would now like the chance to have our voices heard on something that will affect us so profoundly.

Important policies such as Brexit must reflect (or seek to reflect) the informed will of the current electorate if they are to be considered ‘democratic’. It is perfectly reasonable for supporters of Brexit to oppose a second referendum; but that does not in any way mean that it would be undemocratic to hold one.

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