A reckless and cavalier abuse of democracy: The democratic failings of the EU referendum

The EU referendum has inflicted potentially huge damage on democracy. Superficially it has the appearance of a great democratic event. In reality it risks bringing democracy into disrepute. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, has written an excellent, thoughtful article on this: ‘Britain’s Democratic Failure’. What follows is largely my own reiteration and comment on his argument.

At the outset it is important to be clear about two things. The first is that I unequivocally believe in democracy. The quotation attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ expresses a view that I share. In relation to the referendum the question is not about democracy versus anti-democracy, but about whether the referendum was the best democratic way of deciding the issue of Britain’s EU membership. As I suggest below (and as Rogoff argues) it was actually a fairly terrible way of going about the decision.

Secondly, it needs to be emphasized that the question posed by the referendum was not a typical political issue. The gravity, importance and implications of the result were repeatedly discussed during the campaign—although little of this resonated with the wider public. The overwhelming majority of legal, constitutional, economic and financial experts warned of the dangers of Brexit, both in the short and long term; at the very least, this was an indication that the issue needed to be treated with great care and thoughtful consideration.

It is right that in a democracy questions of such fundamental importance as EU membership are decided democratically. But was a referendum the best way of doing so? And if referenda are in general a good way of making (some) political decisions, was the specific vote over EU membership a good example of a referendum? There are persuasive grounds to answer ‘no’ to both of these questions, and in particular the second of them.

To answer the first question it is important to distinguish between two forms of democracy: direct and representative. Direct democracy involves the people (or, more typically, those people who qualify as citizens) as a whole deciding on policy. There are few examples of direct democracy: the most famous is ancient Athens in which adult male citizens (constituting about 10% of the overall population of the polis) voted individually and directly on all legislative and executive matters. Some modern democracies—notably Switzerland and some constituent states of the USA—resort to direct democracy (through referenda) on various issues, but no modern democratic system can be described as a direct democracy.

The British political system is an example of a representative democracy: citizens do not vote directly on legislative and executive matters, but rather elect representatives to decide these matters. There are very good reasons why representative democracy is vastly preferable to direct democracy. Unlike ancient Athens, modern democracies are not small city-states in which the labour of women, slaves and foreigners enables the small number of citizens to participate in politics; they are large, highly complex societies and economies in which universal participation in politics would be impossibly unwieldy, beyond the capacity of most individuals to make informed decisions, and fraught with political risk. Representative democracy, by entrusting decision-making to elected officials dedicated to the sophisticated and difficult task of politics, is a rational and sensible arrangement for modern society and one that minimizes the risks of direct democracy.

The EU referendum illustrates some of the risks of direct democracy. On an issue of long-term and national importance, a fraction over half the voters (and little more than a third of the electorate) has overruled the wishes of a fraction under half the voters (and nearly two thirds of the electorate). It invited members of the public to decide on an issue likely to lead to national and international instability, with unpredictable risks and dangers both to Britain and the wider world. Many British citizens are educated and well informed, and are capable of weighing up the issues in a balanced, intelligent, critical and careful way. But many more are not. It is clear that many voters had little real idea of the issues; many voters engage rarely, if at all, in political debate, and, in so far as they do, rely on tabloid newspapers for their political information. Furthermore, there is the possibility that extraneous and irrelevant factors—the weather on polling day, the national mood in relation to Euro 2016, prejudice against immigrants that had nothing to do with the EU debate, a vote against Cameron or a vote for Boris (rather than a vote on EU membership), a vote based on no more than instinct or emotion—played a part. Any national vote is liable to be affected by contingency; the national mood now is not the same as the national mood a few months ago or the national mood as it will be in a few months’ time.

The referendum delivered, therefore, a snapshot of a deeply divided public mood on a particular day, and a result that statistically involved only a tiny margin between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. And yet the result is likely to affect many millions both in Britain and abroad who did not vote, as well as generations of people to come.

Rogoff comments that ‘the real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union… was the absurdly low bar for exit’. In other words, the problem was not so much that a referendum was held in the first place, but rather that the specific EU referendum was fundamentally flawed in its design and conception. Above all, a ‘decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances’. In Rogoff’s words: ‘This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.’

This is surely right. In a robust democracy, even comparatively minor issues go through rigorous and careful procedures. Checks and balances are built into the process. Legislation is debated and voted on several times; it has to pass through committees and both houses of parliament; and bad legislation can be amended or repealed. Select committees scrutinize the work of the executive; parliament holds the government to account. In other words, for all its problems, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, parliament works according to procedures designed to ensure political decisions come under thoughtful consideration and are not rushed. Even for minor laws, parliamentary procedure is robust and rigorous, embodying important checks and balances.

The debate over EU membership is far from a minor issue; on the contrary it is the most important in recent British politics. Yet it is hard to claim that the referendum was designed with the robustness and rigour normally found in British political decision-making. To allow a decision of this magnitude to be reached by a simple majority of the public on a single day after a campaign of a few weeks (and of extremely poor quality) would seem laughable if it were not so tragic. The absurdity of this was compounded by the fact that the electorate were offered the option to leave the EU but without any proper debate or information about what would happen if that option was (as it turned out to be) successful. In effect the referendum was offering two paths, but one of which was blind, difficult and lacking in any map or guide.

For all this the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. For it was Cameron who pledged a referendum—not for democratic reasons but in the expectation that by doing so he would end divisions within his own party and see off the threat of UKIP (instead, in a grim irony, he exacerbated divisions and handed victory to UKIP). Worse than his high stakes gamble—he bet the nation, and possibly Europe, in order to win a narrow tactical victory—was the reckless and ill-considered design of the referendum itself. There were various ways in which he could have built checks and balances into the process: he might have demanded a demonstrably clear majority (e.g. 60-40) of the voters, or a majority of the electorate as a whole; he might have insisted that the outcome of a Leave vote in the referendum would simply trigger a second referendum at a defined point in the future, allowing for further consideration and debate as well as a much clearer understanding of exactly what Brexit would entail; he might have required that an outcome of Brexit was only valid if all four constituent countries of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of it; he might have indicated a clearer role for parliament in the decision; or he might have implemented two or more of these checks and balances. But he did none of these things, doubtless fearful of antagonizing UKIP and the right-wing of his own party. The referendum was a hubristic abuse of democracy on the part of Cameron that threatens to bring democracy itself into disrepute.

However, an important note needs to be added to the above. In a campaign of extensive mendacity, the Leave campaign did not have a monopoly on lies: the Remain camp told a few too. Cameron claimed that the day after a Leave vote he would invoke Article 50, thereby irreversibly beginning Britain’s exit from the EU. Not only did this not happen—it was never likely to, and was presumably a dishonest but unsuccessful campaigning scare tactic—but the claim was fundamentally dishonest in the first place. Neither constitutionally nor legally is it in the power of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50; rather it is parliament’s decision whether and when the process of Brexit begins. We may be grateful that, despite Cameron’s cavalier and reckless abuse of democracy, British constitutional law has within it a potentially vital parliamentary check on the ill-conceived referendum and its disastrous outcome.

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