On Saturday, some 700,000 people marched through central London to demand a second vote on Brexit.
No one knows where negotiations over the country’s exit from the European Union will end up. But it’s now obvious that no one heading to the polls in 2016 could have grasped the full implications of this decision. Three issues in particular show just how ill-informed voters were.
One is the economy. Promises of a prosperous “global Britain” aside, many businesses have warned of supply-chain disruptions. Whatever deal is reached, it’s likely that trade growth will slow, foreign investment will fall, and the pound will weaken. Added red tape may cost exporters some US$35 billion a year. Even by the most optimistic estimates, economic growth will be reduced by 1.6 percentage points over 15 years.
Second, Britain will have less influence. It will likely be left following many or all of the EU’s rules while having little or no say over them. The Brexit process itself – in which Britain has caved to nearly every demand made of it – suggests how little leverage it will have in negotiating future trade deals. And those deals wouldn’t be that bountiful anyway.
Third, Brexit threatens the United Kingdom itself. Majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. Should Northern Ireland stay in the customs union and partly in the single market, as the EU insists, Scotland may demand similar treatment, or full independence. The appeal of a united Ireland will likely grow stronger.
All this is by no means the worst-case scenario. If Britain exited without a deal, the results may be dire: trucks backed up on motorways, medicine shortages, and more. By one estimate, the cost in lost output might be 5 per cent over 10 years; some government figures are even more pessimistic.
Few voters had any of this in mind when they voted in 2016. Now that the full consequences have come into view, though, popular opinion may have shifted. A survey this week by Eurobarometer, which conducts surveys for the EU, showed that if the Brexit referendum were held again tomorrow, 53 per cent of Britons would vote to remain. (In 2016, 52 per cent voted to leave). How they’d vote a second time around would depend on the options before them; what’s clear is that public support for the vote itself is substantial.
To be sure, holding another vote and then carrying out its instructions would be difficult. It would depend on the outcome of the current negotiations and be subject to intense political arguing. At a minimum, it would require extending the Article 50 process that underpins Brexit, which in turn would need approval from the EU and the British Parliament.
Second thoughts are allowed in democracies. That a slim majority of the British population should set such a deep historical change in motion defied common sense at the time, and still does. Those taking to the streets have it right: give the people a second chance.