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.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

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

South Africa has been junked

Treasury says the credit ratings downgrade “could not have come at a worse time”, as country enters a 21-day Covid-19 lockdown with little money saved up

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories