Brexit and the call for a second referendum

By Professor Alex de Ruyter and David Hearne, Centre for Brexit Studies

Alex was interviewed this morning on BBC Radio Hereford and Worcester by Elliott Webb on the issue of “Is it time for a second referendum”? (You can listen here at about 10 minutes into the broadcast)  With the resignation of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary following closely after David Davis as Brexit Secretary, there is a sense of increasing disarray in the “Brexit agenda”.  So, we thought we would give this matter some further discussion.

Calls for a second referendum on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU have grown in intensity in recent months.  Whilst the original referendum on leaving the EU was legally non-binding, the result has been taken to be politically binding by both Government and Opposition.  This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that its non-binding nature was one of the reasons why the referendum was structured in the way that it was.

In contrast, the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence included groups not normally consulted in elections in the UK – specifically those aged 16-17 and most people legally resident in Scotland at the time, including EU citizens.  This was done on the rather sensible grounds that this question of exceptional constitutional importance would have ramifications for the duration of those young peoples’ lives and would have a substantial impact on the rights of all those living in the country.

However, the Brexit referendum excluded both groups.  Such a decision was puzzling given that both groups of people had extremely strong interests in the result.  The case of European citizens residing in the UK is particularly problematic: the number applying for British citizenship was vanishingly small, largely on the grounds that doing so was unnecessary.  The only practical advantage that becoming citizens would give them was the ability to vote in a General Election.  Given that only a handful of constituencies are marginal enough for their votes to matter, it is unlikely that most felt that the cost and difficulties associated with applying for citizenship would be worthwhile.

In contrast, their interest in the referendum result was obvious and direct.  It is not inconceivable therefore that had the same rules applied to the EU referendum as were applied to the Scottish independence referendum, the result would have been different.  In any event, the referendum was not structured in this manner and critical decisions over the type of Brexit that the country wishes to pursue loom larger than ever.

It is this that motivates the calls for a second referendum.  The fact that many of those who agitate in favour of such a position desire to remain part of the EU has led many to believe that this is “sour grapes” from those who lost the first one.  In essence it is viewed as a way to thwart Brexit.

The truth or otherwise of this position, however, does not make a second referendum ipso facto a bad idea.  Specifically, there is a reasonable argument that a matter of such vast economic, constitutional and political importance as the nature of Britain’s exit from the EU should itself be subject to a referendum, particularly given the lack of agreement amongst the executive and legislative authorities over which direction to travel.

Unfortunately, this runs into a plethora of difficulties.  Referenda are usually binary, and for good reason.  Those which give multiple choices are potentially subject to the Condercet paradox[1].  In all probability, therefore, we are faced with a difficult situation in which a majority of voters wish to leave the EU, as per the 2016 referendum (with one recent YouGov poll conducted in June this year suggesting that just over half of respondents (53%) say that the Government should proceed with Brexit, whilst 45% opposed the idea of a further referendum “once the terms of the withdrawal negotiations are known”.[2]

At the same time a majority of those voters would prefer to remain part of the EEA (and/or a customs union) rather than a hard Brexit (it’s likely that a minority of Brexiters and most Remainers would support the former, giving it a modest overall majority) but would also support EU membership in preference to remaining part of the EEA (and/or a customs union) on the grounds that the latter is an erosion of sovereignty relative to what currently appertains.

The present disagreements in Parliament and Cabinet undoubtedly reflect this unfortunate arithmetic.  Whilst there is certainly a case to offer the electorate another vote on Brexit (or otherwise a General Election), we are left with a Hobson’s choice in which no matter which outcome is chosen, an outright majority of the electorate will be unhappy and will feel that their vote has been betrayed.

Worse still, prevarication has meant that a number of choices will need to be made extremely quickly.  A harder Brexit, if that is indeed what is desired, is a multi-annual project at best: undertaking such a radical break without first putting the proper preparations in place (which most experts estimate would take a minimum of 5 years) is a recipe for wrenching economic dislocation and political difficulties and strife.

[1] The Condorcet paradox demonstrates that social choices can violate transitivity. Imagine a world in which voters have 3 choices: A, B and C.  One third of voters prefer A to B and B to C (A>B>C).  One third of voters prefer B>C>A and the final third of voters prefer C>A>B.  Whatever choice is eventually made (A, B or C), two-thirds of voters can be made happier by choosing a different outcome.  For example, if A is chosen, both the second and third group of voters (i.e. 66.7%) would prefer C.  The same is true for all others.  Even worse, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem shows that, under sensible conditions it is impossible to solve this dilemma without some individual being able to “dictate” the social ranking – in other words a form of dictatorship.


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