Many in the UK Are Clamoring for a Brexit Do-Over

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Britain Reacts To The EU Referendum Result
Trying to stay blue and gold. Photo: Mary Turner/2016 Getty Images

Still in the midst of a brutal national hangover after 51.9 percent of UK voters opted to leave the European Union on Thursday, millions of people are now trying to convince the British Parliament to set up a do-over. An e-petition urging a second EU referendum has obtained more than 2.2 million signatories in the less than two days since voting on the first referendum ended, and the clamor to sign on even temporarily crashed the website hosting it. That petition calls upon “[Her Majesty’s] government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based on a turnout less than 75%, there should be another referendum.”

It was submitted through a parliamentary petition system in which any petition that obtains 100,000 signatures will trigger a review by a special committee who will then have to consider whether the issue should be raised in the House of Commons. 

Not surprisingly, many petition supporters hail from major British cities, especially London, and virtually all are likely voters from the defeated Remain camp. It’s also possible that some Leave supporters are having second thoughts as they watch their country’s economy semi-collapse and the full ramifications of Brexit become painfully clear, and indeed there was at least anecdotal evidence of that on Friday. But a second EU referendum, no matter how tantalizing the idea is to Brits in some stage of grief, remains unlikely. 

First off, putting aside the issue of whether it’s even possible to retroactively change the rules of the referendum (it surely isn’t), more than 17 million people voted for the Brexit. In addition, the EU is unlikely to sit idly by while the UK makes up its mind a second time. The Brexit is going to be an enormous challenge to negotiate, set up, and recover from, and the EU wants to get it over with as soon as possible. Also, a majority of UK politicians would need a lot of courage to even try to actively rebuke the will of a majority of British voters — though it’s worth remembering that the referendum is merely a recommendation from voters, not a legally binding decision. Also worth considering is how, as some analysts who spoke with the Telegraph point out, the UK political class may be loath to let another referendum happen anytime soon, on any issue, since this one has been so divisive and they probably don’t want to set further precedent for this sort of direct democracry.

None of this means another EU referendum is impossible, but if that is going to happen, it’s far more likely it would be after the terms of the Brexit have been negotiated with the EU, and contingent upon a majority of UK citizens being clearly unhappy with those terms. That process could take years. It’s also possible, if public opinion turns against the Brexit, that a political party could campaign on, and take power with, the issue in a snap general election, but that is still a big if at this point.

Meanwhile, some Londoners are trying to act local to stay global. A separate e-petition which asks London mayor Sadiq Khan to declare the city’s independence from the UK and request membership in the EU has collected more than 150,000 signatures of its own over the past two days. The Independent’s Holly Baxter summarized the rationale for such a move on Friday, declaring that Londoners, nearly 60 percent of whom voted to remain in the EU, “should go it alone”:

London is already somewhat of a city state, and City Hall could easily become a London Parliament. In 2014, the Financial Times reported that “barely 7 per cent of all tax paid by London’s residents and businesses is retained by its mayor and boroughs, compared with 50 per cent in New York.” And as more concessions are offered to Scotland, and the UK faces the very real possibility of a break-up, London has good reason to want in on that kind of bargain.

London has a population right now that is bigger than Scotland and Wales put together and generates 22 per cent of the UK’s GDP while being home to only 12.5 per cent of the UK’s population; its economy is the size of Sweden’s. Back when the Scottish referendum happened, 20 per cent of Londoners reported that they were interested in the idea of London secession.

But could London break away? Technically yes, but it’s also very unlikely, according to some experts who spoke with the BBC:

[London School of Economic Professor Tony Travers notes that] new London mayor Sadiq Khan would be “well within his rights to tell the government London didn’t vote for Brexit and that City Hall now viewed the government as dysfunctional”.

Moreover, Prof Travers argues, a Leave vote could provide such a “systemic, existential jolt” that the mayor and others might decide London required radical change. 

[And then there] are those like Kevin Doran, head of strategy and research at KBL European Private Bankers, who see London becoming an independent city state as inevitable, suggesting it could happen as early as 2035.

Others think the idea is ridiculous: 

London is unquestionably the economic capital of Europe but it would be a mistake to think of London as an island because it still relies on the rest of the UK economy,” says Ben Rogers, a former Downing Street policy adviser and now director of the Centre for London think tank. “If London is the engine of the UK economy, the rest of the UK provides the fuel,” he adds.

Like the City of London Corporation, Mr Rogers argues that London’s relationship with the UK is such that one cannot exist without the other. “I can’t envisage any possible world in which London would become independent,” Mr Rogers says.

But do-over minded Brits shouldn’t totally despair, they might be able to drive a moving truck a little north and automatically be back on the path to EU membership, should Scotland go ahead and vote for its own independence as a result of the Brexit decision.

This post has been updated to reflect new petition totals.

Many in the UK Want a Brexit Do-Over