I’ve written before about the polling on a second referendum and the immediate impact such a vote might have on British politics. But what would the longer-term impact of such a vote be? It’s extremely difficult to predict the future, but there’s enough evidence from recent times to offer some tentative suggestions.
1. A total collapse of trust in the political class. Most obviously, at least those that voted Leave, as well as a sizeable chunk of Remain voters, would conclude that the political class had lied to them on a matter of fundamental importance. “You lied” would be the new Leave campaign’s top message and would, at the very least, make the campaign extremely competitive. This sense of betrayal would continue for many, many years to come. Remain politicians and commentators seem to have ludicrously convinced themselves that the real anger lies on their side. They’ve got no idea.
2. A possible rise in extremist parties. The public don’t closely affiliate with party brands and vote primarily on their perceptions of the parties’ stances on key issues that matter to them. When a significant number of voters chose the BNP in the late 2000s, it wasn’t that they were attracted by the BNP’s brand of toxic politics but because they believed they were the only party interested in cutting immigration. They quickly turned to UKIP in the early 2010s. If a mainstream party deliberately courted the disgruntled Leave vote, it’s reasonable to assume they’d stay in the mainstream, despite their anger. If the mainstream parties all tried to “move on” from a second referendum these votes would go wherever they were apparently most wanted. The result might be very ugly.
3. ‘Change’ campaigns would be impossible. From the North East referendum to the AV referendum, politicians have found it increasingly difficult to sell change to the electorate. In both referendums, victorious campaigns tapped into voter hostility towards Westminster and politicians found they couldn’t persuade them to endorse change. After a second referendum, the anti-Westminster sentiment across much of the country would kill any prospect for major social change going forward.
4. Devolution might be an easier sell. The only significant change that might be more sell-able post a second referendum might be much greater devolution. In the same way American congressional campaigns thrive by their anti-Washington sentiment, so we might see the same sentiment grow across England. “Take back control from Westminster” might be a much more compelling proposition even than it is now.
5. Turnout would likely plummet in national elections. While it’s possible to imagine that local political engagement might rise, it’s difficult to imagine that the same would be true of national votes. Indeed, it’s hard to see anything other than a major reduction in turnout at General Elections in years ahead. “What’s the point in voting?, would be the general consensus of those that felt betrayed.
6. Libertarianism might grow as a force. The libertarian British right – now almost entirely centred around think tanks and campaigns – thrives when anger at Government is at its highest. Their message that politicians can’t be trusted to deliver is always strong but particularly when Westminster is perceived to have collectively failed. The TaxPayers’ Alliance grew rapidly in the late 2000s after the scandal of MPs’ expenses. A second referendum would provide the perfect springboard for their message.