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Editorial: British People Deserve Another Say on Brexit

  • A protester holds a Union flag with slogans including "Democracy", "Rule of Law", "Liberty", "Tolerance" and "Fish 'n' Chips" during the People's Vote March for the Future in London, a march and rally in support of a second EU referendum. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 20, 2018. See PA story POLITICS Brexit Protest. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Published: 10/22/2018 10:10:11 PM
Modified: 10/22/2018 10:10:15 PM

On Saturday, some 700,000 people marched through central London to demand a second vote on Brexit. They’re about the only ones talking sense on the matter.

No one knows where negotiations over the U.K.’s exit from the European Union will end up. (Things are not looking great.)

But it’s now obvious that no one heading to the polls in 2016 could possibly have grasped the full implications of this misguided decision — and that the British people deserve another say.

Three issues in particular show just how ill-informed voters were.

One is the economy.

Promises of a prosperous “global Britain” aside, businesses have already scaled back investment and moved workers and offices overseas. Many 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 $35 billion a year. Even by the government’s most optimistic estimates, economic growth will be reduced by 1.6 percentage points over 15 years. Under any plausible scenario, Brexit will make the U.K. poorer.

Second, Britain will have less influence in the world.

It will likely be left adhering to many or all of the EU’s rules while having little or no say over them. It will no longer benefit from the union’s economic and political clout. 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 the future trade deals Brexiters had in mind. And those deals wouldn’t be that bountiful in any event: The government says that a deal with the U.S. might add just 0.2 percent to GDP.

Third, Brexit threatens the integrity of 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 concessions, or full independence. The appeal of a united Ireland will likely grow stronger. That a referendum intended to assert the U.K.’s sovereignty could instead hasten its dissolution is among the grimmest of Brexit’s ironies.

All this, remember, is by no means the worst-case scenario. If the U.K. exited without a deal, the consequences would be dire: trucks backed up on highways, planes grounded, food and medicine shortages, and more. Some sort of Irish border would be necessitated, with a lot of attendant risks. By one estimate, the cost in lost output might be 5 percent over 10 years; some government figures are even more pessimistic.

Few voters had any of this in mind when they turned out in 2016. Fewer still had considered the consequences for navigation systems, electricity markets, hazardous waste disposal, blood supply and so on. It didn’t help that the campaign was marred by reductive sloganeering and outright lies.

Now that the full consequences have come into view, though, popular opinion has shifted markedly.

A Eurobarometer survey this week showed that if the Brexit referendum were held tomorrow, 53 percent of Britons would vote to remain — and only 35 percent would still want 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 wrangling. 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. Given the stakes, though, these obstacles shouldn’t be insurmountable, especially if the EU is willing to help.

Second thoughts are permitted in democracies. That a slim majority of the U.K.’s population should set such a profound historical change in motion without guardrails or off-ramps defied common sense at the time, and still does. Those taking to the streets have it right: Give the people a second chance.


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