The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum surprised both Brexiteers and Remainers, and has resulted in nearly two and a half years of negotiations with Europe, debate, recriminations, and uncertainty at home. Individuals from both camps have, from time to time, called for a second referendum. Various reasons have been put forward to justify this, including the lack of information put to the public by both sides, the misinformation presented by both sides, the alleged overspending by both camps … and so it goes on.  

I spoke to a renowned human rights and public law expert, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who, as a member of the group Lawyers for a People’s Vote, argues that a second referendum is necessary in the interests of young people — those who will be the most affected by the decision to leave.  He also believes that the decision ‘was made on the basis of woefully inadequate information coupled with dishonesty on both sides’ which has led to levels of far greater intolerance in our society: a worrying trend.  Sir Geoffrey has been involved in many high-profile international cases, including prosecuting the war criminal Slobodan Milošević in The Hague, but for him the issues at stake for the UK and its future are of paramount importance.      

Sir Geoffrey’s assertion was that for the UK to ‘not allow a particular cadre of voters the right to take part in government [is in] breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.  What he meant by this is that in 2016 many people, about 1.4 million, were too young to vote in 2016, but could now, and so they are being denied the right to have any say on a decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives.   

I wanted to explore this situation in depth. Sir Geoffrey questioned whether it can be said to be in any way democratic, when so many affected had no opportunity to have their say. He pointed out that very few reached out to these young people to find out what they think. Some could be affected for the next eighty years, until the end of the century which, when looked at in that way, is a rather sobering reminder of the long-term importance of the decision the country took in 2016 affecting not just us, but future generations also.

A Question of Numbers

We began by discussing the question of numbers of young people who voted in the Brexit referendum. Turn-out for the 18-24 age bracket was 64 per cent, much higher than originally thought, suggesting that many young people realised this was a pivotal period in their lives and wanted their voices heard. It is estimated that 70 per cent of them voted to remain. In the 65+ age bracket, the turn-out was 90 per cent with the majority voting to leave, leading some to argue that young people have been betrayed by the older voters. I asked Sir Geoffrey what he would say to those young people who chose not to vote.  He paused, and in a sombre tone replied that he would say to them ‘that this will be […] irreversible for a long period of time’, and that from the economy, to freedom of movement, they must think about the long term implications of leaving the EU.

Further, he would urge them ‘to read broadly, from a range of sources and to not discount or disregard the thoughts and views of those who are diametrically opposed to you … why?  Because only then can you make a fully rounded and informed decision.’  His advice is for them to ‘exercise their vote thoughtfully.’  Whether or not if more had voted, it would have changed the result is uncertain, but the point is that we need to include and involve young people in the decision that will affect their lives.  Democracy only works, and gives the correct result, if people come to an informed decision, and then vote.   

That proclivity [towards violence] highlights the value of the European Union for neighbourliness and the way it forces people to become neighbours

We then went on to discuss the question of reducing the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds, as Scotland did in their 2014 independence referendum. Sir Geoffrey pointed out that if they can work, pay taxes, join the Armed Forces, become a member of a trade union, get married and leave home without parental consent, then why can’t they be trusted with the vote? When young people are allowed to make life-changing decisions in their personal lives, and contribute to the welfare of society, they are no less able to think and make reasoned decisions when it comes to their ability to vote. I agree with him. It is vital that young people should be encouraged in every way to engage in politics, and participate knowledgeably. 

A recent Briefing Paper from the House of Commons suggested that the 25-34 age group were the least politically aware, followed by the 18-24 age group — a small ray of hope — but as a country we must encourage involvement of young people, through education, more participation in all forms of the media and more engagement by politicians with young people, so that they are properly informed of the issues and have the tools to come to a decision which they believe is right for them. Reducing the voting age would be a start. 

Another reason to encourage young people to engage in politics is explained by Sir Geoffrey.  As people get older, their voting habits become more ingrained. They are less likely to debate political issues with opponents, choosing rather to discuss them with sympathisers.  Reducing the voting age, and engaging more young people, could counterbalance such entrenched voting. However much society may portray the youth as being obsessed with social media and easily swayed by trends and fads, young people are, in Sir Geoffrey’s opinion at least, less likely to be swayed. They have yet to be shaped into a ‘political tribe’, as he puts it, and are more likely to vote pragmatically.   

A People Misled

We then went on to consider the question of whether the public was misled in the campaign, by both sides.  Sir Geoffrey thinks that it was, with various untrue assertions being made, or insinuated, and with money being argued as a key reason to leave.  He maintains that money was of less importance than the question of security, which was barely debated.  He is concerned that as a society we are becoming less tolerant and accepting of others, warning that there is a real danger of violence erupting, unless we become more open-minded.

a second referendum is ‘an absolute necessity’ for democracy

I asked Sir Geoffrey about the threats made to Gina Miller, when she successfully challenged the authority of the Government, rather than Parliament, to invoke Article 50. He reiterated that such vitriol only serves to confirm his concerns that we could be heading towards a more intolerant and potentially violent society, not just in our country but in our attitude to other European nations. ‘That proclivity [towards violence] highlights the value of the European Union for neighbourliness and the way it forces people to become neighbours … [that] is far more important, in my view, than simply money.’

I had not thought of this angle, but he is right. The EU provides a forum to disagree, discuss, but eventually reach an accommodation. By turning our backs on Europe, we are removing ourselves from an international organisation which depends on the crucial element of compromise. We have chosen to exclude ourselves and so be exclusive. Surely, we are better served to be included and inclusive? We have chosen the path of division, not unity. We must not, as a consequence, become intolerant and unable or unwilling to listen and compromise. That is Sir Geoffrey’s fear.

I asked Sir Geoffrey about the question of sovereignty, a concept used by those arguing to leave. This approach alarmed him, because it sends a message to other countries, with the inference: if you do not interfere with our sovereignty, then we shan’t interfere with yours. That is a worrying interpretation of sovereignty, because taken to its logical conclusion, it allows for nations to do unspeakable things to its citizens, with impunity.  

Brexit Referendum Round 2?

We then discussed the question of whether another referendum would undermine democracy.  Very quickly, decisively and persuasively, he countered that by saying that it would only undermine democracy if the first was unbreakable by an unstoppable power, and that is not the case here. Parliament does not have that sovereignty and power.  If it did, then inherently, we are not a democratic country. In 2016, people were misled and were unable to make an informed decision: that is not democracy.  He used the example of Parliament: if Parliament debated and made a decision on a certain area and then, down the line, discovered they were deceived with the information provided, then there is nothing undemocratic in them reconsidering given the new information made available. There is plenty of evidence to show that voters were misled in 2016 and, for that reason alone, he argued that we are perfectly within our rights to demand a rethink.  

We then went on to discuss the question that would be put in any second referendum. He believes it should be simple: leave on the terms negotiated, or stay. In his ideal world, a second referendum would have no campaigning, no politicians peddling their lies, but rather the public being presented with impartial facts to make that decision. He knows that it is a pipe dream, but I fully understand where he is coming from.  The news is full of it, the public are tired of it, and we all now know far more than we did in 2016. 

Sir Geoffrey’s call for a second referendum is not because his side lost. He is not a sore loser, as Brexiteers would have him, but he sincerely believes that, both for young voters to have their say, and because the full story was not placed before us in 2016, a second referendum is ‘an absolute necessity’ for democracy. If he and his colleagues are unsuccessful then ‘it only highlights the need for the decision to reflect the political will of the people affected, and of [those of] voting age at the time, when the decision is made.’ 

Was Sir Geoffrey always so resolute in wanting another referendum?  ‘No, I wasn’t’, he was quick to answer. It was not that long ago that 1,400 lawyers put their name to a letter to Mrs May urging her to call a second referendum, but Sir Geoffrey’s was not of the signatories.  He explained his reasoning. At the time, he had real concerns that a second referendum could lead to our country becoming embroiled in violence. He clearly now believes that bringing justice to democracy is more important, but the whole debate highlights the passions of people in opposing camps, and the danger of passion turning to hatred, and hatred to violence. 

Sir Geoffrey came across as a thoughtful man, who has taken a while to formulate his views. He expressed them dispassionately, but with total conviction. He mentioned that his experience as a human rights’ lawyer hasn’t necessarily influenced the line he is taking, but I’m not so sure. While he is clearly anxious that young voters be given the chance to engage with and participate in a decision that affects them, a chance denied them first time round, he is even more concerned about the effects that the whole process and outcome has had on our behaviour and attitudes to one another. He often referred to the need for us to be a tolerant, understanding and compassionate society, and to be good to one another, and our neighbours. He has seen the consequences of such a failure to do so in his work. The only way to address both concerns, he convincingly argues, is to hold a second referendum.   

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