Why those calling for a second EU referendum are their own worst enemies

Since the June 2016 referendum on membership of the EU, various supporters of remaining in the EU have called for a second referendum.  They are perfectly entitled to do so.  They obviously encounter opposition from supporters of leaving the EU, but what amazes me is how much a major obstacle to them succeeding in their aim is, well, themselves.  The two campaigns in the referendum were an exercise in how not to campaign and those dedicated to calling for a second referendum seem keen to maintain this tradition.

To achieve a second referendum, campaigners have to win over others who supported leaving the EU or who by default supported that outcome by not voting.  That requires some degree of political nous and subtlety.  Both of these qualities are notably absent.  You do not win over people by telling them that they are ignorant or deluded (or worse).  The publication The New European has a headline: ‘When one person suffers from delusion it is called insanity.  When an entire government suffers from a delusion it is called Brexit.’  This is pretty much par for the course.

Supporters of a second referendum rather jumped the gun by calling for one as soon as the result was known.  Oona King had a short debate in the Lords calling for one.  She said she wanted one when the negotiations were complete, but the way it was argued made it clear it was a reluctance to accept the referendum result.  That now bedevils the case for a second referendum: it comes across as sour grapes, a reluctance to accept the outcome of last year’s referendum.  The same applies when drawing attention to the fact that it was not legally binding or that there were no threshold or turnout requirements.  We cannot apply rules retrospectively.  People knew the basis on which the referendum was being held.  The result was a majority in favour of leaving the EU.  It was a majority of those voting, but that is what matters.  Those who failed to vote by default supported the side that won.

The way to make the case for a second referendum is to start by accepting the result of the 2016 referendum.  Then one begins to make a case for having a say on the outcome.  One does that more by stealth than shouting it from the rooftops.  One also does it by biding one’s time.  If negotiations do not turn out as well as expected one does not say ‘told you so’ (some are in effect already doing this in advance) but rather take the line of ‘oh dear, but it is not necessarily too late…’.  But all this may now be too late.  Those arguing for a second referendum may have alienated those they need to win over to such an extent that the odds of them carrying the day may be too big to overcome.  They really are their own worst enemies.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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9 Responses to Why those calling for a second EU referendum are their own worst enemies

  1. Ken Hope says:

    People who are shouting from the roof tops, about we need this we need that, what there really need is a cup of tea and chill and listen to what lord norton has said.

  2. Dave H says:

    Even if there is a second referendum, it is likely to be between accepting a deal and leaving without a deal. I think those calling for a second referendum assume that if a deal is rejected, the UK would stay in the EU.

  3. Gary Weatherhead says:

    As someone that was incredibly torn on which way to vote in the EU referendum* (I’m a labour party member that eventually voted leave) i found myself thinking “this is what is must be like to be a Conservative”. It was repeatedly insinuated/suggested that if i voted for leave i was being ‘ignorant//selfish/unintelligent/naive/anti-immigration… etc’. There continues to be an air of contemptuous moral superiority on the part of too many on the remain side of the argument, and as Lord Norton says, it is not a useful tool of persuasion. If there was to be a second referendum, I am one of those that would be open to the prospect of changing my mind.

  4. Gary Weatherhead says:

    * I was going to be so bold as to ask how you (Lord Norton) eventually voted in the referendum as I recall you being distinctly undecided?

  5. tizres says:

    LEPIDUS.
    What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

    ANTONY.
    It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it hath
    breadth: it is just so high as it is, and moves with it own
    organs: it lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements
    once out of it, it transmigrates.

  6. tizres says:

    Just a touch off-topic: ‘hundreds of thousands’ is a figure above 200,000 and ‘tens of thousands is a figure up to 199,999: why is there a widespread assumption that the Tories aim to cap net immigration to 100,000?

    • James Hand says:

      I guess there may have been policy/language slippage. The 2010 commitment was to ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands’ taking net migration back to the levels of the 1990s. As the early 1990s saw net migration under 100,000 and the late 1990s saw net migration over 100,000 the target figure could be up to 199,999. However, the 2015 manifesto inserted a ‘the’ – ‘keep our ambition of delivering net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands’ and again in 2017 ‘sustainable migration, with net migration down to the tens of thousands’. While 100,001 is clearly not hundreds of thousands it is in the hundreds of thousands column and the harder target seems to have been adopted rather than allowing a greater element of flexibility.

      • tizres says:

        James Hand, you have encapsulated rather than solved the problem by stating, “While 100,001 is clearly not hundreds of thousands it is in the hundreds of thousands column…”

  7. tizres says:

    My inbox is full of ‘omg no’ with the sole variable of caps lock on/off. Exciting enough?

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