Jonathan Rowson: If you want a second referendum on Brexit, you'll have to accept how sacred the first one was


Jonathan Rowson, our friend and founder of Perspectiva, has written an intriguing column on what kind of second referendum on Brexit we would need to design - if it were to honour the power and importance of the first referendum.

Rowson suggests, startlingly, that there is something sacred about all of this:

What makes something sacred is not that it is religious or even that it is good, but that it represents a moral touchstone or boundary; something held to be fundamental and inviolable. The sacred is an antidote to instrumentality; it is whatever we are invested in — family, flag, place, idea — to the extent that to lose it would represent an existential threat to our identity and capacity to make meaning out of life.

Hard though it may be for Remainers to understand, Brexit is sacred is precisely that way for many who voted to leave. What matters politically and culturally with Brexit therefore is that democracy is upheld as the founding principle of our shared life together. If that shared touchstone goes, or is seen to have gone, everything else could go with it.

So how could a second referendum survive the Leavers’ challenge that it blasphemes against democratic principles? Rowson suggests a solution below:

A cross-party alliance of MPs should table a motion requesting a two year extension to Article 50. We need to legislate for a second referendum with a twist, and with enough time to establish the contours of what the result of the referendum would mean in constitutional and policy terms. The prior decision to leave the EU would be respected as our existing democratic decision and default option, and understood to mean leaving with Theresa May’s Deal; the best the government could do and all the EU is offering.

This outcome can be avoided after a national campaign by revoking our Article 50 notification, but this would require a supermajority of 66%[4] of the UK as a whole (two thirds) and at least 50% in each of the four home nations. However, this time EU nationals and UK citizens living in the EU would be allowed to vote, as would 16 and 17 year olds; in each case extending on existing precedents (eg 16–17 year olds voted in the Scottish referendum in 2014, and EU nationals are currently allowed to vote in local elections) and based on polling data about the acceptability of EU nationals voting as full-time residents.[xiv]

So the “twist” is that abandoning Article 50 (which triggers the process of leaving the EU) would require a 66% supermajority, built on an electorate that was expanded to include youth and EU residents. A win of less than 66% (but more than 50%) becomes a mandate for a “soft” Brexit”.

The roots of the word “sacred”, as Rowson says, imply “sacrifice” - it demands that something must be abandoned, given away. For Remainers to get their second shot at Brexit, without the process deeply violating the “sacredness” of the first act of democracy, they must surrender some of their power in advance to it.

Rowson goes on to say:

The point is not just for one side to win, but to subsume the toxic and divisive energy of the first referendum in the relatively positive and inclusive energy of the second. The purpose of the supermajority and expanded electorate is to neutralise the important and legitimate claim that another referendum would cause further division and be a betrayal of democracy.

The resulting campaign cannot be about wishing away the causes and consequences of the first vote. In light of the exacting 66% target, the point would have to be national renewal within a further democratised transnational alliance, and it should be collaborative and inclusive by design.

In light of existing support for independence in Scotland and growing support for a United Ireland; and due to the socio-economic divisions and alienation between rulers and ruled that drove the result, there is no way back to anything resembling a united kingdom without some kind of sacrifice.

The UK has been weakened both by the Brexit process and all currently conceivable outcomes, but sacrifice is precisely about the transition from weakness to power, in which, as Terry Eagleton puts it, self-dispossession is a condition for self-fulfilment.

…Asking for a second referendum in which we can only remain with a supermajority is a form of self-dispossession, and it has to be a genuine sacrifice and risk for there to be a chance of fulfilment.

We may need a sacrificial act to wake up to the gravity of our situation. Referendum not as closure but catharsis… Where we grow through crisis, and commit to rebuilding and care about the future of the social fabric of the country as a whole

More here. A messy plan - or a necessarily complex one? Interested to hear your thoughts.