In defence of a people’s vote

Side profile of Richard Branson looking pensive with sky and buildings in the background
Owen Billcliffe
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 11 March 2019

As the UK Parliament convenes once more this week for a “meaningful vote” to find a majority for the withdrawal agreement Theresa May’s government has negotiated with the European Union, it’s impossible to ignore the frustration and exasperation of either side of the Brexit debate. After 990 days and billions spent, few want this drama to continue, and the real-life impacts are already being felt by people across the UK.  

While pundits and politicians ponder this week’s parliamentary arithmetic and the possible consequences, it’s not difficult to spot what many consider the only solution to the frustrating impasse that appears to have trapped much of Britain in a vicious and divisive cycle. I agree strongly with those Members of Parliament and others who have suggested that any final deal the UK government ends up with should return to the UK people for an informed vote on whether to support it or to remain in the European Union.

To me, this sounds like the only fair and democratic way of giving those who voted in 2016 a chance to review the agreement in full detail, get to know the facts, and decide whether or not they reflect and confirm the hopes and expectations expressed in their original vote.

Knowing what we know now about the 2016 referendum - the distortions of the EU’s role and regulations; the unreasoned dismissal of impacts on UK business and the effect on Britain’s economic growth; the false promises about money returning to the public purse; the bluster about the ease of future trade deals – I feel giving the final say to the UK people is not an affront to democracy, as some have suggested. A popular vote on the final deal is a much-needed affirmation of democracy’s fundamental principles.

To be clear, I have never made a secret of my own leanings. I campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU. As a long-term investor in UK businesses, I felt that Brexit, especially a no-deal departure, would do lasting and irreparable damage to the UK economy, to countless businesses, and – most importantly - to the British people. But the decisions Parliament has to make now are about more than economic impacts. They are about bringing together a divided country, in a way that is fair and square, on the basis of realistic assessments.

“The only thing wrong with democratic process is the failure to use it”, someone once said. That may be true, but what’s worse is to squander the opportunity through poor preparation and misinformation. Informed consent, a cornerstone of democratic participation, never stood a chance three years ago. Now it can serve to determine what really is best for Britain, not what’s best for one party, nor for one clique.