The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the ancient Persians made all decisions twice. In the first round they would get uproariously drunk, have a good old row and – while still heavily inebriated – vote. Then a few days later, having sobered up sufficiently, they would go through the whole process again – before acting on that final decision.
There’s something to be said for deliberating on important matters twice. Behavioural experts have long known that the frenzy of emotions aroused by heated debate can cause individuals to pursue choices that in more restrained circumstances they might not make. The concept of ‘sober reflection’ at the ballot box persists in the modern political age. In France and forty-one other countries Presidential elections are conducted on a two round system which is not so dissimilar to the Persian approach. In the first there is an almost intoxicated free for all in which anyone can stand and anything goes. Then a week or two later there’s a play-off where the candidates with the two biggest mandates go head to head. It’s an arrangement that endeavours to seek compromise but which critically allows time for serious reappraisal. By offering voters a pause for reflection the middle ground is reached.
In most big decision making processes, time for consideration is generally considered to be a good thing – particularly when the decision has financial or life changing implications. The rose clad cottage in a rural location on a sunny day may inspire the eager house-hunter to make an impulsive offer on the spot. But should the survey come back and the dream home turn out to be a rat infested dump with a leaky septic tank well, in Britain at least, you can simply walk away.
Make any purchase of goods or services, outside of a store anywhere in the EU and you are granted a minimum 14 day cooling off period – by law. Switch off something as basic as your laptop and it takes more than one click.
And yet – when it comes to the biggest collective political and economic decision in modern British political history – we the British people are currently being offered less opportunity to reconsider our decision than when we choose to delete an app off our phones.
Yesterday in the Commons MPs passed an amendment obliging Theresa May to come up with a Plan B in three days if (or more likely when) her Brexit deal is voted down at the critical meaningful vote on Tuesday 15th. The amendment will allow MPs to come up with alternatives including a People’s Vote. Predictably the very mention of this has led to howls of outrage from hardline Brexiters and members of the ERG. These are the same people who told us that a trade deal with the EU would be the easiest in history and that everything would be absolutely fine. Now these very same individuals seem intent on driving the UK off a cliff in pursuit of their fantasy Brexit; an option that was never on the referendum ballot or even the side of their big red bus.
Whatever your views on Brexit – one thing is absolutely crystal clear. This is a crisis. It is a crisis that began with a referendum and a second referendum on the outcome of what Theresa May has negotiated seems like the logical, fair and democratic way forward.
There are those who say that a second plebiscite would betray the 17.4 million people who ‘have made the decision already.’ To which the only valid response can be: “well in that case why are you so afraid?” Do the Brexiteers no longer trust the people to deliver ‘their’ result? More democracy is never a bad thing. Asking the British people to confirm or reject the deal after nearly three years of negotiation and debate is not only reasonable – but required.
Others argue that perhaps Article 50 should simply be revoked. I think that’s a very bad idea indeed. Any attempt to ‘stop Brexit’ would throw us into even deeper political turmoil.
The public in 2018 are more informed than they were in 2016. They are also, for the most part, heartily sick of the whole thing. A People’s Vote offers a chance for the country to come together in sober reflection draw a line and move on – whatever the outcome. Either way, the people will have spoken.