Skip to main content

Was the Brexit referendum legitimate, and would a second one be so?


This article suggests that common arguments questioning the legitimacy of the first Brexit referendum prove flawed, as do certain others supporting the legitimacy of a second referendum. A different case for a second referendum is offered that would have added to the legitimacy of the first, but the opportunity for which has now passed. Nevertheless, it might be legitimate to overturn the first referendum through a normal parliamentary process should there be a significant level of Bremorse among the public, or a general election supporting a change of policy.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    For example, see reactions to the Government’s defeat in the Commons on 13/12/2017 in which Parliament insisted on a vote on the Brexit deal, in which the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tells the Press the vote will not “frustrate the will of the British people”.

  2. 2.

    For a clear account of both, although he combines the two arguments, see Grayling 2017, Appendix 1: Brexit, pp. 189–97.

  3. 3.

    See too the report of the Electoral Commission, on the campaign (2016: 50–53), which rejects the need for a “truth” Commission (2016: 3).

  4. 4.

    I am grateful to Philip Pettit for the formulation of this point.

  5. 5.

    Long-term resident EU citizens should be able, as at present, to become citizens of their host state with relative ease. But it also is justified that unless they are prepared to make the commitment to acquire this status they should be excluded from voting in national elections. See the contributions of Bellamy and Bauböck to Bauböck et al. (2012).


  1. Armstrong, K. 2017. Brexit time. Cambridge: Cambridge Union Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Bauböck, R, P., Cayla, and C. Seth. 2012. Should EU citizens living in other member states vote there in national elections? EUI working paper RSCAS 2012/32.

  3. Bauböck, R. 2015. Morphing the Demos into the right shape. Normative principles for enfranchising resident aliens and expatriate citizens. Democratization 22(5): 820–839.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Buchanan, A. 2002. Political legitimacy and democracy. Ethics 112(4): 689–719.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Clarke, H.D., M. Goodwin, and P. Whitely. 2017. Brexit: Why Britain voted to leave the European Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Electoral Commission. 2016. The EU referendum: Report on the 23 June 2016 referendum on the UK’s Membership of the European Union. Accessed 2 Feb 2018.

  7. Grayling, A.C. 2017. Democracy and its crisis. London: Oneworld.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Jefferson, T. 1984. Letter to Madison of September 6, 1789. In Writings, ed. M. Petterson. New York: Library of America.

  9. May, K. 1952. A set of independent, necessary and sufficient conditions for simple majority decision. Econometrica 20(4): 680–684.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Schwartzberg, M. 2013. Counting the many: The origins and limits of supermajority rule. Cambridge: Cambridge Union Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Sterne, L. 1762. The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman, vol. V and VI. London: T. Becket and P. A. Dehondt.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Tierney, S. 2012. Constitutional referendums. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Van Parijs, P. 1998. The disenfranchisement of the elderly, and other attempts to secure intergenerational justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs 27(4): 292–333.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Waldron, J. 1999. Law and disagreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Waldron, J. 2016. Political theory. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Wheeler, B. 2018. Brexit: Seven thoughts on a second referendum. Accessed 2 Feb 2018.

Download references


I am grateful for comments from participants at the Oslo ECPR EPS Panel and Conferences on Referenda at the EUI and on Brexit at the University of Exeter. Further helpful points, not all of which I have been able to address here, were raised by Chris Brooke, Steven Klein, Albert Weale, Carlos Closa, Richard Rose and Sandra Kröger.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard Bellamy.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bellamy, R. Was the Brexit referendum legitimate, and would a second one be so?. Eur Polit Sci 18, 126–133 (2019).

Download citation


  • Brexit
  • Constitutionalism
  • Democracy
  • Legitimacy
  • Referenda