Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Let's do it again some time: Voters' remorse and the case for a second referendum (at some point...)

So, it happened. The great British public, in its wisdom, has chosen to leave the European Union. Despite all the warnings of economic chaos and the costs of losing our rights to live, work and trade in the largest market in the world, a majority of British voters decided that it was a risk worth taking. Almost immediately, the markets set about proving that the dire warnings of the consequences of Brexit were not just scaremongering. As I write, the pound is down 10% on its already diminished value of last week, and the political chaos ensuing at Westminster is if anything worse than predicted. Planned investments are being put on hold, deals cancelled. We have a lame duck executive, and total confusion as to how and when we will leave the EU, and what kind of relationship we will have afterwards with the rest of what remains our continent.

This raises the question: did British voters really want all this? If so, the 52% who voted leave must have a remarkable taste for risk, an obsession with the abstract principle of sovereignty, or a masochistic desire to see their country become poorer. Or simply such a degree of discomfort with current levels of immigration that any price is worth paying to reduce it. This seems implausible. The same electorate, last year, rewarded a Conservative party that nailed its colours to the mast of economic stability and fiscal prudence. Now, we have opted for the opposite. Growth forecasts are revised down, the Bank of England has prepared emergency measures to help stabilize the banking system, and the ratings agencies have downgraded UK government debt. And it's only Tuesday.

It seems much more likely that many voters simply did not believe the warnings that Brexit would make us poorer. And why should they? Fully understanding the complex workings of a modern market economy embedded in a global context is beyond the abilities of even our finest academic specialists, who notoriously failed to foresee the great financial crisis of 2007-8. The economic models most voters have in their heads are at best extraordinarily crude, and in most cases almost non-existent. Given such intellectual uncertainty, voters could either take on trust the statements of a rather alien group of distant technocratic elites with a patchy track record, or go with their guts. The latter was even more likely given that leave voters disproportionately did not expect their side to win.

However, the economic downturn already emerging is likely to encourage a rapid updating of many voters' views. In much the same way as inveterate smokers can ignore the widely available medical advice on tobacco yet only give up their habit at the first real signs of damage to their health, the economic consequences will almost certainly change minds. Sure, many Brexiters will remain convinced they made the right choice, responding to cognitive dissonance by clutching at whatever consistent narrative they can to make sense of it all (a recession was coming anyway, or was caused by the failure to remove the foreigners quickly enough, or by our embittered European neighbours sabotaging our economy in revenge... the headlines write themselves). But the most exposed will surely begin to wonder if they made the right choice. Given a second chance, they may vote to remain, if a vote is held before full withdrawal takes place.

This raises a broader issue about democracy. After losing the vote, Remainers (including myself) took to social media to broadcast their anger, frustration and bitterness, often belittling the intellect of the leavers. Many insisted a second referendum should be held, because of the egregious lies told by some of the leaders of the Leave campaign. Leavers (or at least the politer ones) insisted that democracy means accepting the result, even when it goes against you. But there is a serious democratic case for a second referendum.

A vote is in part a choice under uncertainty, based on the expected utility of the policy chosen. It appears that many voters felt that the choice of leaving the European Union would reduce immigration and/or enhance British sovereignty, with relatively bearable economic costs. But it may well turn out to be the case that the costs are unbearable, perhaps especially for many lower income supporters of Brexit.  Put another way, they made a mistake. They were warned of that mistake, but made it anyway, perhaps swayed by the well-funded propaganda machine convincing them that Brexit would work in their interests. They should be given a chance to reverse that decision, if evidence emerges of a significant number of voters changing their view (perhaps through a general election, a likely scenario given current chaos).

Would this be undemocratic? Referendums are notoriously blunt instruments of democracy. They reduce complex questions to a binary choice, and unlike other votes, offer no chance to revise our choice in the light of new information. When we elect a parliament in general elections, we do so on the basis of the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, which means, amongst other things, that 'no parliament can bind its successor'. This is the very opposite of the logic of the democratic vote as one-off, irreversible decision. And, in the case of the European Union, it is worth recalling, this is already the second referendum we have held. The reasons for holding a second vote were ostensibly that the European project has changed dramatically since 1975, when we first voted on membership. In other words, we chose to change our minds in the light of new information.

So there is a case for holding another vote (probably on a new arrangement, such as the 'Norway option', rather than on EU membership itself). The problem is that it is hard to imagine doing so quickly, since that would obviously subvert the people's choice. The evidence of serious damage to the national interest must be allowed to pile up. But some of the direct consequences of voting to leave last week could well be irreversible. Choices to move production out of the UK to retain access to the single market, individual decisions to leave the UK to work elsewhere, long term investment decisions that can only be made once, not to mention the destruction of trust in relationships with other countries' governments, are unlikely to be rewound even if we do change our minds. It is perfectly possible that we have already done ourselves permanent and irreparable damage. Like the smoker, we had to suffer the heart attack before we took the medical advice seriously.