It’s easy to knock the calls for a second referendum as sour grapes, but there are in fact good reasons why this should happen.
1. The referendum was incompetently conceived.
Anyone planning a referendum on such a momentous issue must have thought, “What happens if the margin of win either way is very small?” To this question there can only be two answers: (i) it doesn’t matter – one single vote will be enough to decide the matter; (ii) we need to set a minimum appropriate margin eg 15% difference, and a minimum turn-out percentage. The latter was never done, so the former is implied. But that is reckless government.
2. The referendum was incompetently conveyed.
We all know now that a referendum can only be advisory. Yet this was never properly conveyed to the general public. From the start, David Cameron made it clear that he would follow the wishes of the people in public policy. But this is confusing and contradictory. In the end he was unwilling to keep his promise. Putting my first point alongside this one, the only situation in which a referendum with no minimum margin would not be reckless would be if it was made very clear throughout that this was merely an advisory poll. As it was, the terms of the referendum were incompetently conveyed.
3. The referendum was incompetently conducted.
It was clear during the campaigns that many of the claims were ill-founded. The Leave party accused Remainers of scare-mongering – only time will tell if that was true. The Remain camp exposed their opponents truthless statistics and false promises. There was that horrendous poster featuring refugees, and much more. Such incompetent prosecution of the case makes any conviction extremely unsafe. Supposing this was a court of law. If it transpired that the police had supplied false evidence or had promised immunity they could not deliver, or even if they had failed to follow correct procedure, the case would collapse.
4. What next?
What should government do in the light of such a mess? Some of the Leave party seem content to say “that’s democracy!” as if it’s the punch line in some kind of game. Is it good to trumpet a bad example of democratic process? If someone gave me a glass of vinegary wine and said “that’s wine for you!” – I wouldn’t touch a drop again. No, I expect more from wine, and more from democracy.
It’s tempting for Leavers to say, “The vote has been cast, let’s get on with it” – but it’s no way to build a country. If I was building a house and the architect said I could make the foundations from recycled pieces of polystyrene I might think it was the answer to all my problems. If it turned out that this advice was incompetent, should I go ahead or should I start again? When you’ve put in all that work, it’s tempting to bullishly forge on ahead. But is it wise? Of course not.
5. Healing the Nation
Theresa May, along with other recent contendors for office, has talked about unifying or healing the nation. With her experience (relative to her nearest rival for tory leadership), some have called her a safe pair of hands. But healing the wounds which have been caused by this disastrous gamble requires acknowledging that the causes of those wounds were not just a matter of electoral statistics. They were caused by the whole process. Without addressing these at the deepest level, mistrust and division will only continue because the government will have legitimised the exchange of truth for lies.
There are many other reasons people have offered as to why this referendum should be re-run. These are mine. I believe that the cost of re-running it, with clear parameters and expectations, properly carried out with harsh penalties for false testimony – I believe this cost is very small compared to the cost of ploughing ahead regardless.