Why is a second Brexit referendum undemocratic?


Opponents of a second referendum on the toxic and smelly dumpster fire that is Brexit often loudly maintain that it would be “undemocratic”, the logic being that, when former British prime minister David Cameron held a referendum on the issue, a majority voted to leave the European Union.

This is indisputably true.

But I’m unclear exactly why asking voters again would be undemocratic.

Are opponents of a second referendum scared that voters have changed their minds? If so, aren’t people allowed to change their minds? When I buy a washing machine there are consumer protection laws specifically designed to allow me to take it back to the retailer and get a refund if I change my mind about the need for, and suitability of, that washing machine.

Surely the decision to restructure the shape of the fundamental United Kingdom and how it relates to Europe is a slightly more important issue than the purchase of white goods? Or have the opponents of a second referendum never returned a purchase because it turned out to be too big, too small, the wrong colour or quite unflatteringly tight around the stomach?

I also assume that none of them has ever married someone and then decided that they would prefer not to be married to that person. Does ruling out a second referendum not place voters in the position of a Christian fundamentalist unable to leave her abusive vest-wearing husband because she once said “I do” in a church? Or that of a child bride in the Afghan hill country destined to spend her entire life preparing meals for her ageing husband when she would really rather not?

Politically, saying that having a second referendum is “undemocratic” is a little bit like maintaining that, because voters elected a leader once upon a time, he or she is entitled to stay in office for life. I think Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and multiple dictators from other countries would thoroughly endorse this point of view. But should we be taking lessons in democracy from figures like these?

Democracy is built on the idea that voters are entitled to change their minds. In the same way, consumer protection laws are designed to allow consumers to change their minds about a purchase, especially when the advertising for it was deceitful.

And let’s be honest, the washing machine that former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson sold to voters was decidedly not the washing machine that they received.

He sold them a washing machine that, could also mow the lawn. And his advertising for it clearly stated that in addition to mowing the lawn, it could cook healthy, nutritious meals, babysit the kids and give one a soothing foot massage at the end of a long day — in addition to being able to fly to the moon and allow time travel.

The reality is a majority of voters are unhappy with the machine that Boris Electrical Appliances Inc sold them. It does not do what they said it could and they should thus be allowed to return it (with packaging intact, of course) and get a refund.

John Davenport is chief creative officer at advertising and communications company Havas. These are his own views.

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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