I was in two minds for quite a while about whether to sign the (essentially misplaced) petition to change the referendum rules. In the end I decided to as a rather poor way to register my feeling that some kind of additional referendum may well be needed. However, I don’t think it’s the one this petition asks for: you can’t simply change the rules retrospectively. I think something rather different is needed.
There are plenty of indications of buyer’s remorse, not least from those who used the referendum as a protest vote, believing a vote to leave would never materialise. (I don’t minimise the many true believers who – in my view wrongly – think sovereignty is the all-consuming issue.) In fact, I suspect one of those who has buyer’s remorse, but will never be able to admit it, is Boris Johnson.
There is now quite a bit of noise of early rowing back from apparent election promises – on funding, on immigration, on free movement and trade. I suspect this too will have Farage “spitting blood” (a perennial posture). But as reality sinks in, there is a conspicuous lack of urgency about doing anything to enact what the majority voted for. Cameron, and there is every sign that the leading players in the Tory party are more than happy to acquiesce in this, has effectively imposed a three month breathing space that the markets will hate. Sadly this also creates a space for disillusion and resentment to fester unless people are clear about the commitment of government to the process.
What I suspect could yet emerge is a commitment to spell out what sort of deal HM Government believes it can go for and get. From early noises this is likely to include remaining in the single market, accepting free movement of people, and paying a reduced contribution. At the same time, the likelihood of whether the EU will welcome Scotland to stay as an independent nation could become clearer.
It might then be possible to put this whole process within the framework of a future, much more clearly delineated referendum. Unlike the one we have just endured, conducted hastily between a poorly communicated remain and a passionate but unclear deep blue water leave, this would be conducted through a period of negotiation, which included a debate about what the real future options are, and end with a vote between two clear, and clearly costed and spelt- out choices of a remain and leave package. And ideally one that will be offered to 16-18 year olds too.
If “Leave” is not going to mean what many of those who voted for it thought they were being told it meant, this is not an affront to democracy, or ignoring the will of the people. It an opportunity to deepen and refine the people’s participation in democracy, while – I hope – reducing the appeal of demagoguery. It does what many people said they wanted, but weren’t getting, a chance to decide on the facts.