January 20, 2019

It's Time for a Second Brexit Referendum

“Rousseau did not believe that representative democracy was democratic. “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing,” the French theorist wrote in his 1762 treatise, Social Contract. According to Rousseau, the will of the people cannot be truly expressed when mediated by representatives—it has to be voiced directly.

In 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union—but did not vote on the terms of the exit, nor on its relationship with the EU once it left. After much negotiation, the Conservative-led British government under Prime Minister Theresa May has finally reached a deal regarding these particulars—a deal few are enthusiastic about. Anti-Brexit groups, the Scottish National Party, the Labour party, and even some Conservative members of Parliament have now raised the possibility of a second referendum: a “people’s vote” on the deal’s terms, with the UK staying in the EU if they are rejected—“a gross betrayal of our democracy,” according to the prime minister and others who consider the 2016 result final. The fundamental question is what “the will of the people” requires in this sort of situation.

In the aftermath of the 2016 vote, despite the fact that the referendum itself was not legally binding, there was a near universal understanding that the result had to be respected. Leaving the EU was against the better judgement of the majority of the people’s elected representatives, but the democratic power of a referendum result was seen as trumping their concerns. The UK’s political class, with some notable exceptions, seemed to have espoused Rousseau’s view that direct democracy is democratically superior to representative democracy.”

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