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.