This article scrutinizes the merits of holding a referendum over UK membership
of the EU. It queries the assumption that direct democracy can somehow resolve
the longstanding Europe question in British politics. To do this, the analysis
traces the existence of an exceptionalist approach to the EU within Britain, now
associated with re-negotiating UK membership in the shadow of a referendum.
The article argues that the prospects for a radical reconfiguration of the UK’s
treaty obligations are slim, thereby increasing the risk of a vote to withdraw. Yet
withdrawal would be the opposite of a simple solution to the Europe question.
Political and economic interests dictate lengthy politicking over a highly complex
post-Brexit settlement revisiting free movement of goods, services, capital and
people. Such negotiations undermine any mooted cathartic benefits of a popular
vote, while Eurosceptics will remain dissatisfied in the event of a yes, a result likely
to further destabilize the Conservative Party. Consequently, the simplicity and
decisiveness that a referendum—particularly one that spurns the EU—promises
is merely a mirage as relations with the EU necessarily form part of an enduring
British political conversation.