It is dismaying that most of the binding law in Britain comes from the European Commission in Brussels. But why, with its primacy at stake, did Parliament punt one of the most momentous decisions in British history to a referendum? The bedrock principle of representative government is that “the people” do not decide issues, they decide who shall decide. And once a legislature sloughs off responsibility and resorts to a referendum on the dubious premise that the simple way to find out what people want is to ask them, it is difficult to avoid recurring episodes of plebiscitary democracy.
Last October, 700,000 marched in London demanding a second referendum, which would indeed be based on better information: Few who voted Leave 30 months ago had any inkling of the complexity of unwinding decades of ever-thickening legal relationships. May contends that another referendum would “break faith with the British people.” This, however, postulates a false clarity about what the Leave-voting majority willed. May favors “delivering the Brexit people voted for,” but even the political leaders who favored Brexit voted simply for leaving, the details — wherein the devil always is — be damned.