Sorry but we can’t have a second referendum – here’s what we can do instead

Every minute the crisis engulfing the United Kingdom worsens. There is no leadership and no plan, with both the major political parties in disarray. When the markets re-open on Monday, all hell will likely break loose now that it has become clear just how bad things are likely to get.

Many Remain campaigners – of whom I was one – are in outright denial. A petition for a second referendum has garnered over three million signatures. An anti-Brexit march is planned for London on 9 July. But both these efforts are fatally flawed – we cannot base a campaign on overturning the expressed will of the majority of the British voters.

Yes, holding a referendum was an utterly stupid move, and one that will indeed put David Cameron down as one of the worst prime ministers in history. For short-term party political gain he gambled and lost an entire country. Neville Chamberlain looks like a wise sage in comparison. But we all went along with it and voted. We can’t change the rules post-facto now, because we don’t like the result.

The anti-Brexit event page says:

We almost prevented the Iraqi war by getting out on the streets. Now it is the populous vote that we need to take issue with. … The power is still with the people and we can change things if we are organised and passionate in our response. Let’s unite the Remain voters and those who regret their vote to leave, to turn this on its head. (my emphasis)

I’m sorry, but I can’t support that. That isn’t democracy – it’s explicitly anti-democratic in aiming to overturn the popular vote on the basis of people turning up physically in London for a rally. That way leads to mob rule. (I’d be in favour of a rally, by the way, but on different principles outlined below.)

The people have spoken, and the verdict was ‘Leave’. Yes, they were lied to about the NHS and immigration. But the people are sovereign and their vote must stand. We are leaving the EU. Now we need to focus on what comes next.

Here’s some ideas for what a progressive strategy might look like:

  • We must accept the referendum result and move forward with triggering Article 50. What’s done is done. Other EU countries have made clear that they want shot of Britain as quickly as possible.
  • We must accept that Scotland will now leave the UK. I opposed the first referendum on independence but I would support another now in order for the democratic wish of Scots to Remain in the EU to be respected.
  • A new England-Wales-EU association agreement should include freedom of movement. Otherwise logically there must be a hard border north of Hadrian’s Wall following Scottish secession, which is unthinkable.
  • A united Ireland makes more sense now than for nearly a century, as Northern Ireland also voted Remain, but not at the price of renewed conflict. Keeping UK-EU freedom of movement would reduce some of the tension here – otherwise the NI/Republic of Ireland border would have to be re-fortified.
  • We must demonstrate solidarity with EU citizens of other nations who are currently in the United Kingdom. Whatever happens they will permanently have the right to remain in the UK with all the rights of other British citizens. They should not feel insecure or unwanted.
  • Keeping freedom of movement means we will not be “stopping immigration”, which was a major concern of many who voted Leave. Urgent ways must be found to reduce the social inequality which has driven this division so ably exploited by Farage et al and which are equally behind the rise of the far right everywhere.
  • Boris Johnson must accept that he has no mandate to become prime minister, and if he seeks the premiership it will be in the teeth of opposition from most of the political class, who now detest him for the damage he has done.
  • Whoever takes over the premiership from the humiliated Cameron must quickly call a general election, and ideally something more profound, like a constitutional assembly to work out the future of the UK’s political system.
  • To the extent that we can, we should aim to shore up the European Union so that other member states do not make the same mistake. The EU is the most important peace project in history, and exists for a reason.

We are suddenly plunged into a crucial period of history-making. Many subsequent generations will be affected by the decisions we make over the next few days. Let’s not get it wrong by allowing progressive politics to be permanently sidelined by the opportunistic liars who have got us into this mess.


  1. Dom Aversano

    “The people have spoken, and the verdict was ‘Leave’. Yes, they were lied to about the NHS and immigration. But the people are sovereign and their vote must stand.”

    I don’t know what you mean by “the people are sovereign”, I’m not sure it means anything objective, but the vital argument is that people voted for something quite different. That cannot be brushed aside. We might have adjusted ourself to the fact that politicians lie as a matter of course, but the consequences of this, unlike a general election, cannot be reversed. The level of voter regret, and a general sense of deception, is unprecedented. Furthermore it’s clear there is no plan whatsoever, Britain is entering a state of deep turmoil, and needlessly so. In addition to the obvious 3 people I know have been racially abused since the result in ways that would have been unthinkable 6 months ago, one had bottles thrown at her on a train and had to call the police.

    My question: what is the harm in a second referendum given the magnitude of this decision. If people are serious about Brexit they can vote the same again?

    1. Peter. C

      The reason for no 2nd EU referendum is very simple…….

      We were offered “A” vote on leaving or remaining the EU…….. It was not the best out of three!!

      I am Scottish and in 2014 indie referendum I voted NO but only after the Vows were pledged.
      Once the vote was over and it was a NO to leaving the UK. I was as first relieved and awaited the Vows that were never delivered as I had thought it was promised.

      I accepted I was Duped but at the same time accepted the result.

      It is simply a case of Sour Grapes at the EU result……things didn’t go the remain way and are acting like petulant children stomping their feet looking for a way to get their own way.

      Grow up and accept the result, you have an alternative if you want to remain in the EU…… Move to one of the 27 other EU member states.

    2. Bluebell

      Good comment and true.

    3. Andrew Ingrams

      A second EU referendum could be justified if it becomes clear public opinion has shifted strongly against Brexit, the former attorney general has said. So urge others and make your voice heard.

    4. Bluebell

      No!… the vote is in….Democracy prevails… you just can’t change you mind “After the Fact”… Geez

    5. Andrew Ingrams

      geez louise…

  2. David Keech

    Mark, I completely respect your opinion but beg to differ for a couple of reasons:

    (1) The first referendum was advisory. Now that the people have seen the impact I do think they deserve a second chance with a second referendum that is mandatory, and does include automatic split of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK if it succeeds.
    (2) OK I am dual national living in the USA. I am very used to seeing major votes requiring a 60% majority in the USA senate. A major constitutional change like this one should not be passed with what is essentially a 50 / 50 split. The new referendum should require a 60% majority and then it would be binding.

    1. trish

      Now that people have seen the impact?
      It was each person’s responsibility to make an informed decision when voting, not a reaction after the vote!
      Time to move on and separate….this is the will of the people.
      If not, then democracy has failed and England will have even bigger problems.

    2. Fergus Mason

      “and does include automatic split of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK if it succeeds.”

      But majorities in Scotland and NI want to *stay* in the UK, so adding this stupid, authoritarian requirement is a pretty transparent attempt to rig your second referendum in favour of a Remoan vote.

  3. Joe Heffernan

    I support the ideas set out in this Blog. I especially think the idea for a “Constitutional Assembly” is sensible and important. The unwritten”British Constitution” got us into this mess. I would support the idea of referendum as part of the new written constitution but they should be hard to trigger and should have a technocratic supporting documentation and for major constitutional questions require more than a simple majority. It’s appalling, in my opinion, that the referendum was called on the basis of a split in the Conservative Party. It’s crazy that now that it’s happened that there is no plan in place on how to carry through. Finally, on a matter of such magnitude should a simple majority have been enough? I agree that the result if the referendum should stand because it was run on the basis of a simple majority but to change the US Constitution requires 2/3 majority.

  4. Kirk Gothier

    Our “winter of our discontent” will only worsen, if the people who “have spoken” are not willing to embrace our global community, and begin an informed discussion, based on science, of our best path towards peace and prosperity, for all “subsequent generations.”

    62 people now have more wealth than half the people on our planet:™.product.100137910.html!

    Clearly, we must discuss Income Disparity, as the primary driver of our predictable, growing global anger…

    After the Greatest Generation fought in our last World War, they returned home to build Great Nations, and an unprecedented standard of living for billions. Hopefully, Millennials will behave more like the Greatest Generation, than aptly named Baby Boomers, and come to agreement about their best path forward.

    Perhaps, they will also give some serious thought to forming a new global political party, committed to supporting truly “free competitive markets” driven by hard work and merit, not Daddy’s money…

    1. Kirk Gothier
    2. Fergus Mason

      “our global community”

      We don’t live in a global community.

      Everyone who voted in the Brexit referendum is part of a small minority of people who live in an advanced, secular country. Most of your “global community” live, in no small part due to their own wishes, in societies that are very different from ours. They do not share our values. Most of us would be justifiably appalled by theirs. So let’s have no more warm, fuzzy but ultimately meaningless talk about a “global community” that does not exist.

  5. Len Rosen (@lenrosen4)

    An interesting analysis of what must follow. What happened on Thursday is a forerunner of what may become a common pattern in the 21st century. You may find the posting I wrote on my blog site to be pertinent. See: In studying the evolution of the state in the 21st century I believe we are witnessing a reorganization of society with the emergence of region over nation, and if anything, loosely constructed federalism. I believe London could even become a city state in the centre of a new Little England if trends continue. After all the majority of our species live in cities today and power will increasingly move from national and sub-jurisdiction entities to urban centres as the century unfolds.

  6. John Nissen

    A second referendum is justified because the electorate were misled:
    • The media failed to point out that Brexit meant a swing to the far right;
    • The BBC, the main arbiter of democracy in this country, was walking on egg-shells, terrified of government decisions on the charter renewal if they put a foot wrong against right-wing Tories, since BBC funding and independence are in the balance this year;
    • Lies by the Leave Campaign would not have been allowed in a Court of Law.

    1. #2ndref

      Yep, absolutely agree. Special EU Question Time debate this evening (Sun 16 June) audience applauded loudest when point was made about the misleading leave campaign messaging and broken promises we’ve seen.

  7. Roberto

    second referendums are hold in other countries and now people can see the real effects of brexit, facts speaks louder than words. I can’t see the problem of having a second referendum to settle the issue once for all.

  8. Robert Wilson

    Excellent post Mark,

    There are a couple of salient environment and energy questions to be resolved.

    1. The UK is signed up the 2020 EU renewable energy target. Does exiting the EU invalidate that?

    2. Will the UK now exit the European Emissions Trading Scheme?

    3. Does this make any post-Paris ramp up of climate ambition impossible in the EU?

    4. Is it now certain EDF will can the EPR?

    5. Are the Japanese going to be in any hurry to build their planned reactors in the soon to be named Poundland once they get their licenses next year or so?

    6. How many years will this delay building much needed interconnectors to Europe?

    I don’t think the answers to these questions will cheer anyone up. Except for the people who’ve just screwed this country for the next few decades. But we already know they only about “ordinary”, “decent” people, whoever they are.

  9. Chris Goodall


    Thank you for writing this.

    It may seem a suggestion that is unrelated to your post but I think that an immediate switch to PR would also help.

    My reasoning is this. I think there are actually four main political groupings in England. They are muddled up in two main parties and UKIP.

    1, A right-wing, socially conservative, populist, anti-EU group.

    2, An internationalist, free-market and socially liberal pro-EU group.

    3, A social democratic party that broadly supports the EU and is favour of stronger state services, less inequality but also happy to use markets where appropriate.

    4, An old-fashioned socialist group that is equivocal about the EU and favours nationalisation of many privatised services. Left-wing populism.

    PR would allow these groupings to form very rapidly indeed. I mean within a week or less (though obviously it would be very messy and disorganised). Internationalist Tories can join Group 2 as would some LibDems. Social conservatives and UKIP would form the core of Group 1. Group 3 would be composed of some LibDems, many Labour supporters (but not members), possibly some Conservatives and many Greens. The old left would stay in Group 4.

    Groups 2 and 3 would be unequivocally in favour of staying in. 1 and 4 would be outers or ambivalent. If Groups 2 and 3 fought a near immediate election and between them got a majority of seats (in a PR system which might combine some local representatives and some party lists) then they would either form a government individually or as a coalition. (Think the current German government). But whatever the precise composition the administration could claim a legitimate case for abandoning Brexit.

    This may sound fanciful in the extreme. But I can see no other way of organising British politics to give democratic weight to an eventual decision to go back on the referendum verdict. Unlike you perhaps, I think this is still something we should look for.


  10. David

    Great analysis Mark – thanks for sharing those thoughts and thereby enriching the Brexit discussions all around the world. Could you kindly answer a quick question to enlighten those of us in the Commonwealth?:

    Given the presence of a powerful, globally respected and loved 90 year old Monarch ruling in the UK, is there not hope that she may be given space to express herself on this extremely salient issue, over which I am certain that she too must be feeling this general discomfort?

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      I don’t think so! We’re already in constitutional crisis and a political intervention by the Queen would tip us over the edge into total chaos.

    2. David

      Thanks for relying, Mark,

      Agreed about the Constitutional crisis that the UK is already dealing with at the moment (while also hunkering-down for what may transpire when the markets reopen on Monday morning).

      But, and this was my thrust, couldn’t a calming opinion voiced a highly-respected State elder become a very valuable input to help restore reason under these very same awkward circumstances?

  11. William Hughes-Games

    Whatever you think of the Brexit result, you have to admit that the UK is a democracy. In many other so called democracies, the powers that be would simply have rigged the vote. Anyone been looking at the Democrat primaries in the US of A. In the UK, the powers that be didn’t want Brexit so the vote to leave is the best indication of the health of British Democracy.

    As for the panic, you are all overreacting. The devil is in the detail. A move such as this could go either way. If you elect your “Bernie Sanders” to lead you and yes, you have one or in fact two, Britain will go from strength to strength. If you elect your “Hillary Clinton” I don’t like your chances. This can release huge amounts of energy and innovation.

    One of the good results, already visible, is that the EU leaders are talking about reforming the EU. It is not a democracy since the main function of a democracy is the ability to chuck out the decision making pwople before they think that their positions are divinely determined. The EU by any definition is a dictatorship and is being manipulated by the USA, some would say, increasing the risk of a nuclear exchange in which Europe would destroyed. Leaving that aside, You don;’t want to be in the pocket of America.

    1. Bluebell

      What you say is correct, best reply to this article. Thank you.

  12. Kate Kilpatrick

    Mark, the referendum was deeply flawed from the outset. Above all, no-one really knows what they were voting for because there was no Brexit plan presented.

    As such, what we need now is to postpone invoking Article 50, find a way to negotiate the likely Brexit deal with the EU – and I think Merkel would be open to that – and then put it to a second referendum. In the second referendum the deal should be clear and the terms of what constitutes a mandate to act should be defined. That would be a fairer way to deal with the very narrow victory for Leave, balanced against the deep fears and concerns of remain voters.

    There are plenty of examples of second round referenda on important issues like this. It is not undemocratic to say, OK the British people have shown a narrow preference for LEave in this referendum, and as a result we now need to define what the terms of that should be, and then give them the detail so they can make a final informed decision.

    1. Jane Wong

      I totally agree. We should be allowed a second referendum after we start to talk to Europe to lay out a detailed Brexit deal. Then we can then decide for sure if we want to Leave or Remain. As Tony Blair pointed out, we have now chosen to move home without viewing the house, we can now go to see the house, send a surveyor in to do a survey and decide if we still want to move for sure.

      If the Leave vote was not a marginal win, then holding a second referendum might not be fair but in this case, it was marginal and people vote Leave based on the wrong information, why can’t we have another when Ireland had two referendum.

  13. StephenC

    Hi Mark
    The general thrust of your arguement is sound.
    The vote has happened and whatever was said, it was for the voter to decide how to vote.
    I should be considerable critisism of our “free” press for not holding those to account who were telling out right lies.

    It is not clear that the House of Commons would vote to enact Brexit in its current make-up, which would be politiacl suicide for some, but not others.

    Brexiteers fall into 2 camps
    – the free traders, who will accept considerable levels of immigartion/ people flow for the benefit of economic growth.
    – the anti immigartion group, who are defined by this issue.

    The Tory leadership contest should uncover which camp the contenders fall into, and that the contenders outline in some detail the type of relationship they will seek with the EU and the world.
    Hopefully in conjunction other parties will also state how they would approach the brexit issue, if they were in power.

    Once the positions are clear from the leaderships, a general election is essential, as Parliament is Soverign in this matter, not the referendum outcome, where each contender for a seat explicity states how he will vote.

    A general election under current rules, where each new MP has a stated position on how they would vote (without whips) will allow a legitimate and legal vote in the only place where it must ultimatly be decided. This route is the only method to provide a mandate that is sufficiently robust in light of the divisions and consequences that have been exposed.

    The government that takes office will have recieved the mandate to negotiate on the terms highlighted to the electorate before the general election takes place.

  14. #2ndref

    Absolutely agree!!

  15. #2ndref

    What about Boris’ original plan for 2 referendums in 2015!

    “ICM asked respondents if they support a second referendum focusing on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU – 41 per cent backed the plan, 29 per cent were opposed and 30 per cent did not know.”

  16. David Hyams

    Thanks for your several sound suggestions. The one I would take issue with is Northern Ireland. A delicate balance was struck by Good Friday Agreement after very difficult negotiations. One unpicks that at one’s peril. There will be strong forces within Ireland to do just that. I have no solutions but suggest its unwise for outsiders to wade in to such a complex situation with simple solutions.

  17. keith reamden

    The first referendum should never have had to take place, let alone a second one. The UK should never have entered into the EU in 1973, but now the people have spoken and we need out. full stop. the ones that wanted to stay in need to realize that the British Economy will always recover as it has done on numerous occasions. Stop whining everyone, and let’s get on with it. this country needs people with backbone. not hangers on.

  18. David H

    Another reason a second referendum just won’t fly, at least not yet – why do we think EU countries would welcome the UK back?

    Many Europeans I know, especially those living inside the UK and who didn’t get to vote, are deeply hurt by the referendum result. A country that they saw as welcoming and which they have given a lot to has just turned around and slapped them in the face. That is going to take some time to make better and a lot of effort is needed to rebuild anything resembling good relations.

    The UK has now officially thrown its tantrum and left the party. The other kids may be hesitant to invite such a spoilt and petulant child back. No one wants a friend who is known to just walk out when things get tough or when they don’t get their own way.

  19. Catherine Macdonald

    Nearly but not quite right.
    We need a general election, where every candidate states whether he / she will vote to trigger Article 50. We elect our candidates, and they vote for or against triggering as they stated in their manifestos.
    Then, if we want leave, we have the proper constitutional backing for it, and if not – not.

  20. Pekka Taipale

    I would like to thank British people for having the courage to say Leave.

    I actually would have voted Remain myself, and I am sure there is great difficulty ahead, particularly for Britain. But there are important benefits as well, the urgency of which has come to light with the immediate reaction after the vote by Juncker, Merkel and Hollande. They were immediately about to expedite the integration, as some kind of retaliation for the Brits to have voted wrong.

    Until this, the federalization and constant enlarging of EU has been completely unstoppable. The political class in Brussels has been utterly, totally deaf to people who don’t want it. They have simply refused to listen.

    Now they have to. It comes at a considerable price, but this may be what was needed to save us from a United States of Europe, running under an increasingly deaf leadership in Brussels (and continuing the monthly travel circus to Strasbourg as a symbol of its steadfast blindness), and *at the same time* implementing some sort of “manifest destiny” of expanding into Turkey and beyond.

    Yes, in the short term we may suffer. But in the longer this might be what saved us all.

    1. Bluebell

      Awesome comment. thank you

    2. Paul Thomas

      Have never heard such short-sighted twaddle in all my life ..

    3. Geoff

      I agree with Paul, Pekka and Bluebell, GIGO, garbage in, garbage out. What a prospect if you two were in left in charge. The 2nd referendum will come.

  21. David Q

    I hope it hasn’t escaped notice that Nigel Farage, in his extraordinary speech to the European Parliament yesterday (28th June), twice mentioned “De-Paris-ing” as a key requirement in the new arrangements between UK and EU that he envisages. This may shape up as a crucial point of contest for those committed to the future of the environment.

  22. Paul Thomas

    We should definitely have a second EU referendum. The people, quite frankly, cannot be trusted to make an unbiased decision about such a momentous issue. Voting to leave the EU is about as preposterous as voting to introduce hanging for toddlers! And it seems that a lot of people didn’t even know what the EU is! In the aftermath of the EU referendum, there was a spike on Internet search engines on questions such as “What is the EU?” and “What does a Brexit mean”? Protest vote .. yes why not … but not on an issue as vital to Britain and the world in general as this. It is not undemocratic to overturn a vote where a lot of voters didn’t know what they were voting for.

    1. Pekka Taipale

      “We should definitely have a second EU referendum. The people, quite frankly, cannot be trusted to make an unbiased decision about such a momentous issue. ”

      If the people, quite frankly, cannot be trusted to make an unbiased decision about such a momentous issue, then why, quite frankly, should there be a referendum at all?

      Or elections, for that matter?

  23. Paul Thomas

    Nothing against elections at all – they are the cornerstone of our democracy and should of course be followed. An election is an indicator of who we want to decide and implement our will (elected MPs).
    A referendum is quite a different matter. It should be an indicator of how people feel about a particular matter. It’s just that, in this case, it wasn’t. It apparently was supposed to be a “kick up the ass” to the establishment. Fair enough, but not if, for many of those polled, the EU wasn’t really the issue at all. Brexiters seem to think this attitude is just a “bad loser” reaction. It isn’t – the Remain camp will keep on with this until justice is served. You can’t have a referendum unless the people are adequately informed. And, in this case, they were not.

  24. Paul Thomas

    Let’s get this “the people have spoken” garbage out of the way: Say, for the sake of argument, we get presented with an Andrea Leadsom as Prime Minister; she has already made her vile views on fox hunting and gay marriage abundantly clear. Say she decided to hold a referendum. the wording of the question being: “Should hanging be re-introduced for certain crimes?” I have quite often heard “bring back hanging” from some thoughtless individuals – do you mean to tell me that, in the event of a “Yes” vote, MPs shouldn’t have the right to a veto on such an important topic, legislation that would put back Britain’s reputation in the world as a fair-minded, just and modern-thinking country by decades? The people cannot be trusted to provide an unbiased and not-knowledge-based vote. Let our elected and paid representatives. MPs, do so …

  25. Jeremy Clark

    Brainexit – now what ? As a statistician I cringe at the thought of ripping up the treaties which bind the EU and the UK together on the basis of a 52/48 % split ! Which silly twit (Cameron) would allow such a major change decided above 50% !! Obviously we’ll never know how the 28% of electorate who didn’t vote would have voted – but one thing is for sure – it could have gone either way if they had. A second referendum is a must after a general election brings a party to power which offers one (labour or liberal democrats ?); after yet another bargaining party at the EU – perhaps next time the EU will listen to the issues ? I can’t agree that another general election would help the Tories – surely the londeners and other city dwellers would support another party ?

  26. Albert Rogers

    I am now and have been since the reign of Gerald the Pardoner a citizen of the USA, but for exactly one reason, most adamantly, I’d have voted Brexit had I still been a Brit. For the same reason, were I French, I’d vote Frexit.
    The Energiewende and the entire dominant view of the EU, that “renewables” of the recent solar origin variety can oust the fossil energy of coal and liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons, is utterly arithmetic nonsense.
    One can hardly think of a policy better calculated to keep fossil carbon fuel burning.


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