Should Theresa May Hold a Second Brexit Vote?

Huh. Theresa May revealed today Donald Trump’s “maybe too brutal” advice on how to negotiate over Brexit:

Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr what it was he said, she replied: “He told me I should sue the EU — not go into negotiations.” … Mrs May laughed off the president’s legal action suggestion, but added: “Interestingly, what the president also said at that press conference was ‘don’t walk away’. Don’t walk away from those negotiations because then you’ll be stuck. So I want us to be able to sit down to negotiate the best deal for Britain.”

This is certainly an … innovative approach considering that there’s no deal to sue over yet, but Donald does like his lawsuits. But it’s worth noting the constraints that May is working under. On the one side, EU officials want to drive a hard bargain as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking about leaving the EU. On the other side, support for Brexit has dropped considerably among May’s own constituents:

For the first year after the Brexit vote, sentiment remained pretty even. But over the following year, as the real-world problems presented themselves in skull-crackingly concrete terms, the Leave vote plummeted by 5 points. This is what’s driving May’s insistence on a “soft” Brexit. Not only does she know that a hard Brexit would be catastrophic, she also knows that this would be impossible to hide. She’d end up leading Britain out of the EU under a thunderstorm of disapproval. It would be a bloodbath.

The other day I suggested a democatic solution to May’s dilemma: call another referendum. This is done all the time. In California, a big majority of voters passed a referendum in 1998 that essentially banned ESL education for Spanish speakers. Twenty years later we decided it hadn’t worked so well, so we repealed the ban by a landslide in another referendum. Likewise, several redistricting initiatives were proposed in 2004 and 2006 and failed, but then passed for state offices in 2008 and finally for congresional districts in 2010.

In 1865 we decided that slavery wasn’t such a good idea after all, so we passed the 13th Amendment. Politicians lose elections and then decide to run again. Taiwan got kicked out of the UN in 1971 by a huge majority. Democracy is messy, and do-overs happen all the time. In the case of Brexit, we have (a) an explicitly nonbinding referendum (b) that passed by a hair (c) with the help of a foreign adversary, (d) and is causing tremendous problems. May would be well within her rights to call for a second referendum, perhaps with different options, in order to give British voters a second chance at something that’s going to have a heavy influence on their lives. And if the idea of just proposing a new referendum out of the blue still bothers you, I don’t figure it would take much for the Democratic Unionists to bolt the Tory coalition over some problem with the Irish border, which would cause the government to fall. Then we’d get new elections, and it would behoove whoever wins to give their new constituency another run at Brexit.

Democracy is messy. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get a consensus that works. At the moment, the evidence suggests that Brexit is on very thin ground with the British public, and it’s not as if it’s some kind of century-old precedent we’d be tearing apart. It hasn’t even taken effect yet. Given everything we now know about the covert Russian support for the Leave campaign; the flat lies the Leave campaign has admitted to campaigning on; and the dawning awareness of just how bad and protracted the problems with Brexit will be; it’s pretty hard to see the case against asking the voters to say Yes a second time before Britain makes such massive constitutional move.

And while we’re on the subject of mysterious foreign countries, I thought I’d draw up a nice simple map for our president. New he’ll always know where he is:

You’re welcome, Mr. President.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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