The unlikely case for a second Brexit referendum

Britain’s exit from the European Union appears complex, uncertain and downright chaotic. The aftermath of the first referendum has led to a flurry of arguments about a second referendum, but an often-ignored argument is the exclusion of British expats. 

By: Evert Whitehouse, English BA
Illustration: Asbjørn Oddane Gundersen

With the Brexit deadline fast approaching, the hotly debated question has appeared once more: Would it be wrong to have a second referendum on Brexit? The Brexit referendum was decided by the thinnest of margins, with a 1.9% majority in favour of leaving the EU, which is a majority of approximately 1.3 million votes. The result was so contentious that there was vitriolic disagreement on whether a simple majority should be valid or not. Furthermore, the debate surrounding a second referendum frequently prompts the following argument: “It was a fair and democratic vote; a second referendum would undermine democracy. You cannot keep asking the people to vote until you get the result you want.”  

Expats excluded 

Normally I would agree, it is wrong to consult the people if you do not intend to listen to them. However, the aforementioned argument has a vital flaw as it ignores a significant segment of the British population: expats. Most British expats have lived abroad for an extended period of time, and a fair number of expats were even born abroad. Those expats born abroad may find themselves limited to only British citizenship due to complex nationality laws. British citizens cannot vote if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years consecutively, which naturally prevents long-term expats from voting. 

This is arguably fair, after all, why should people who live outside of the UK be allowed to influence its politics? Britain is not like America, it does not tax its citizens no matter where they live in the world. So why should citizens who live abroad and who don’t pay taxes be allowed to influence British elections? It would be egregiously unfair to allow expats to influence the lives of people in Britain when expats don’t have to deal directly with the consequences of an election. And similarly, it would be unfair to vote on something which heavily affected expats without giving them a vote on the matter.  

British expats have been overruled and had their futures cast into disarray under the battle cry of ‘restoring British sovereignty’ 

With the current trajectory of the British government, the UK is headed towards a no-deal Brexit which would have disastrous results. It would cast into doubt the residency rights of any British citizen living in the EU, and the British government has done little to assuage any fears expats may have.  

Not symbolic 

Allowing expats to vote would not be a purely symbolic gesture either. It is estimated that 5.5 million British citizens live abroad, which is over four times the 1.3 million vote margin which decided the referendum. This number is significant and could have been vital for the result of the referendum, especially when one considers that expats as a demographic are likely to favour the stability offered by maintaining the status quo via remaining in the European Union. 

Second-class citizens 

The Brexit referendum was both undemocratic and flawed, as it did not consult British expats, whose lives are the most likely to be affected by Brexit. Furthermore, this failure to consult Britons abroad has highlighted the practically limited citizenship expats have. Unable to vote in the UK, and frequently prevented from voting in the national elections where they live, expats are disenfranchised and reduced to second-class citizens. 

A second referendum is unlikely, and a second referendum with voting rights for expats is extremely unlikely. But the latter would at least be democratic and principally right, which is more than can be said for the first referendum. British expats have been overruled and had their futures cast into disarray under the battle cry of ‘restoring British sovereignty’, which has ironically reinforced how little sovereignty some British citizens have. 


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