Alex Cole-Hamilton: Referenda are dangerous, but let’s have another

Scotland People's Vote Rally at the weekend
Scotland People's Vote Rally at the weekend
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I’ve nearly had it with referenda. Nearly. The ancient Greeks knew what I’m talking about. The Athenians put every aspect of public policy to the people in never ending referenda.

From sanitation to taxes, citizens would gather in the shadow of the Acropolis to vote on every decision affecting public life. That must have been tedious. Small wonder then that they gave it up and invented an embryonic style of representative democracy.

Alex Cole Hamilton, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP. Picture: Greg Macvean

Alex Cole Hamilton, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP. Picture: Greg Macvean

They would tell you from their dusty graves that referenda are a bad way of making policy and I would tend to agree.

The rancour of the 2014 independence referendum still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth with many families and friends still divided; claim and counter claim from both sides still reverberate around social media; and the SNP government remain caught in the headlights of the calculations of when best to call another one. It drives me up the wall.

Binary questions asked of the people on a massive and emotive issue will inevitably split the populace into opposing camps. I would not wish that division on our people again but for one last hugely important test of public opinion – and that’s on the final Brexit deal.

I’m a European – always will be – but I’m also a democrat. So whilst I would personally revoke Article 50 tomorrow, no individual (or even a Parliament) has the authority or moral legitimacy to do that. A process begun by the will of the people can only be undone by the will of the people. The warring factions of Theresa May’s administration have proven unequal to the task of even agreeing a baseline negotiating position for Brexit talks. So whatever the outcome, the British people should decide if the Brexit delivered equates to the Brexit they thought they’d voted for. If not, they should get the chance to reverse that decision entirely.

Let’s boil this down – there is widespread evidence that the Leave campaign cheated; there is a suggestion of Russian social media interference; there isn’t an extra £350 million coming to the NHS each week; that same health service is haemorrhaging staff uncertain of their status here; and the pound is now worth 80p in old money following the devaluation of our currency.

In short, given what we know now, and how slender the Leave majority over Remain was in the first place, the case for a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal with an option to remain in the EU is fast becoming irresistible. Opinion poll after opinion poll show the public want that too.

I don’t know what the outcome of such a vote would be – the public are an unpredictable bunch.

The polls said they’d back Theresa May to the tune of nearly 50 per cent last Spring. She bet the house on a snap general election and lost her majority. David Cameron thought he could end an age old civil war in the Conservative party with a referendum on Europe in the first place. He lost that referendum and with it the keys to No 10.

It’s a mug’s game trying to predict what the public will do on anything these days but I’m prepared to take my chances. Don’t get me wrong, I still think referenda are dangerous: When asked to decide on something collectively, we are prone to make bad decisions and we sometimes elect governments that harm us. But when credited with the facts, I still have faith in the British people. That in the quiet contemplation of the polling stations where this all first started, they will see the full hideous calamity of Brexit and reject it entirely.

The people started this process, they can be the only ones to end it.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.