In recent years, referendums have been a growing feature of the British political landscape. Underpinning their popularity, there is the belief that they encapsulate an ideal of perfect democracy, giving citizens the opportunity to reclaim power from their elected representatives and directly shape the fate of their country. Despite this optimistic assessment, political theorists have often dismissed referendums as manifestations of populism threatening the balanced process of representative democracy deliberation. Specifically, many argue that referendums trivialise highly complex issues by oversimplifying them into a ‘yes-or-no’ vote, thereby inducing voters to favour visceral reaction at the expenses of constructive arguments. Although to a great extent this dichotomy has surely represented a challenge to the United Kingdom (UK) democratic system, this essay contends that this need not be the case. Indeed, upon exploring the referendum tradition in the UK, this essay will argue that the problems which this critique identifies are more in practice than in principle. In making such an argument, the essay will analyse and compare the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, identifying viable ways in which direct-democratic devices can be used to enhance UK democracy.
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Historically, the United Kingdom has embodied one of the most conservative forms of representative democracy. Based on a two-party system, the UK Parliament is formed by 650 representatives (MPs) entrusted with the power to scrutinise, debate and deliberate on everyday legislation, as well as on constitutional changes, based on majority. Despite often being contested, this form of strongly centralised government has survived several democratic crises, ensuring stability where fragile democracies failed (NewStatesman, p. 7; Saunders, 2019, p. 26). Parliament sovereignty, however, was tarnished in 1975, when Labour Prime Minister Wilson decided to hold a referendum to consult the people on the issue of UK membership in the European Economic Community (EEC). This single case established an – unofficial – precedent in UK politics, creating the impression that, when deliberating on important constitutional issues, the parliament will turn to ‘people’s will’ to make decisions. However, being the UK constitution uncodified, referendums in Britain have been largely unregulated, allowing parties to use them are tools for their own political purposes, rather than to genuinely seek public engagement in higher order political issues.
In line with this problematic tradition, the 2016 Brexit referendum was initiated by the Conservative, pro-European Prime Minister David Cameron, in the attempt to overcome the increasing internal ungovernability of his party and curb the growing political influence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) (Shipman, 2016; Offe, pp. 18–19; Jennings and Lodge, p. 4–6). After a short and rushed referendum campaign, on June 23, 2016 British citizens were asked to vote on whether the UK should remain a member state of the European Union (EU) or leave. The result of the referendum saw the Leave faction winning by an incredibly small majority of 51.9%, versus the 48.1% of the Remain. With a turnout of 71.8% of all eligible voters, Britain’s exit from the EU was caused by a mere 37.3% of the electorate, by a margin of only 4 percentage points (Offe, 2017, p. 17; Qvortrup, 2018).
This largely unexpected outcome not only sent both UK and EU in havoc, but also crucially revealed the flaws in direct-democracy methods. Indeed, by presenting the public with a straightforward question on a far-from binary issue, the referendum completely ignored the details of how future decisions on UK-EU relationship will be actioned, inducing voters to disregard those intermediate solutions that might have been worked out through reasoning, discussion and bargaining within the parliament (Offe, 2017, p. 17–18). The policy ambiguity which surrounded the Brexit outcome highlights the remarkable difficulty to draw conclusions about the voters’ intentions and preferences based on simplistic ‘either/or’ choices. The binary choices that were offered to voters in the Brexit referendum did not reflect the actual policy options the voters had to choose from – most were not even contemplated at the time of the vote – and could not possibly represent the voters’ true preferences. Leave supporters, for example, overwhelmingly wanted to put a brake on the EU immigration that was enabled by the one of the four freedoms of movement in the EU – of goods, services, capital, and people – but not necessarily to see the stop of the other three freedoms of movement, or to cause a turbulent hardship to their economy that now calls for a fundamental restructuring of its foundations. Exacerbating this situation, the major political parties’ campaigns were either ambivalent or internally divided, offering no clear guidance on which alternative to choose and its broader implications. In addition, media’s coverage of the Brexit issues fostered misinformation, fear of foreign interventions and confusion among the public. Eventually, as Offe points out, on referendum day voters were left relying on their individual means, forming their judgements on gut feelings, rather than on the ‘merits of the two alternatives’ (Offe, 2017, p. 18–19).
Drawing on these considerations, one might argue that referendums are a crude majoritarian tool; they merely provide a snapshot of the public’s opinion at one point in time, allowing the moral panic of the moment to be translated into immediate action. In the Brexit referendum case, far from settling a question, calling voters to have a say, as Offe puts it, opened a ‘constitutional Pandora’s box’, directly eroding the basis of UK representative democracy (Offe, 2017, p. 22). By passing its legislative responsibilities to the “people”, the British Parliament essentially destroyed its reputation as a body able to make difficult decisions on behalf of the citizens on the basis of informed and reasonable argument (NewStatesman, p. 7; Saunders, 2019, p. 29; Offe, 2017, p. 22). Therefore, employing plebiscitarian methods to deliberate on important, long-term policy issues seems to jeopardise parliament sovereignty, as MPs are bounded to deliver what the people voted for, even when the blunt, simplistic binary choice offered by the referendums do not provide any substantial indication of what people’s preferences really are. Binary choice in referendums are then likely to pose a serious challenge to the workings of UK democratic processes, distorting realities and buttressing visceral reactions instead of promoting constructive arguments. However, despite the apparent strength of this argument, comparing the Brexit referendum process, campaign and result with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum will reveal that binary choices in referendums do not threat democratic deliberation if referendums are designed and campaigned in more adequate ways.
With the highest turnout for any UK electoral events since 1918 – i.e., 84.7% – the Scottish referendum incredibly empowered voters and campaigners alike, promoting critical discussion and citizens engagement with the political issue at hand (Tierney, 2015, p. 226). The proposal to hold a referendum was inserted in the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) manifesto ahead of the 2011 elections; as the party won the elections, the SNP government followed up on its promises announcing plans for a popular referendum in 2012. Although certainly, as for the Brexit one, the referendum was an initiative of the Scottish government of the moment, it was, from its outset, subject to multilateral control (Tierney, 2015, p. 229). Firstly, because it was unclear whether Scotland had the legislative power to hold a referendum at all. This sparked an intense debate, which came to an end only in 2013 when UK and Scottish government finally set out a legal regime regulating processes and caveats of the referendum. Secondly, while the Scottish government set time and franchise of the referendum, these was in agreement with the UK government. In designing the question as well, the SNP consulted the Electoral Commission, and accepted its recommendation to change it in order to promote clarity. Furthermore, the Electoral Commission was given a significant role in overseeing and regulating the campaign period, the funding and the spending rules applied. These precautions, by themselves, allowed for a smoother process in designing and promoting a referendum. Moreover, unlike the Brexit one, the Scottish referendum was backed by most of the Scottish Parliament, with MPs taking position and being clearly divided along party lines. In addition, the SNP extended the franchise to 16 and 17-years-olds, allowing younger generations to have a say on a long-term issue drastically impacting their future. Finally, the SNP scheduled the referendum to take place in the second half of 2014, allowing two and a half years to promote and debate the questions at hand. The amount of time that people had to consider the problem of independence and its implications has played a fundamental role, allowing individual reflection and public discussion. Obviously, citizens strongly relied on mainstream media and partial information; however, the scale of the debate, relying heavily on social media, allowed the Electoral Commission to be able to publish a document sent to each household in which the two main campaign set out their respective positions and produce a joint position on what would happen in the event of a Yes or No outcome (Tierney, 2015, p. 230).
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As Tierney agrees, the referendums’ regulations achieved in relation to the Scottish referendum and the ways in which this built on PPERA, tailoring its terms specifically on the Scottish issues, are crucial in building an institutional knowledge about the effective organisation of direct democracy in UK. However, this might still be insufficient to hold back the risks that plebiscitarian methods entail. As Offe contends, referendums create irrevocable facts, precluding learning and de-emphasising requirements of consistency, compromise-building and reflection on consequences. As a result, voters might take regrettable decisions, that fail to adequately consider other people, the facts and the future of the country (Offe, 2017, p. 22). Nonetheless, following Renwick and Palese’s (2019) case in their report Doing Democracy Better: How can Information and Discourse in election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK be Improved, this essay believes that there are several precautions and devices that, if implemented, can improve the quality of information and political discourse in the UK during referendum campaigns, thus avoiding future widespread regrets and discontent (Renwick and Palese, 2019, pp. vii; 5; Crines, 2019, p. 310). Based on extensive research into democratic practices in the UK and elsewhere, Renwick and Palese conclude that much can be done in relation to the level of citizens engagement with political discussion; how people decide to cast their votes; and the means by which voters absorb political information (Renwick and Palese, 2019, p. Crines, 2019, p. 310). For instance, misinformation has been a hugely influential problem during the Brexit referendum campaign, with both Leavers and Remainers spreading false claims on the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership. According to Renwick and Palese, confronting misinformation directly – for example, by banning misleading claims, systematically fact-checking and fostering transparency – is a reactive approach which, while not ensuring high-quality information, does respond to and critically evaluate the information provided by others (Renwick and Palese, 2019, p. 11). Furthermore, they emphasise the importance of ensuring and promoting high-quality information more actively, to help voters to easily find the resources they need. For instance, the report suggests parties and campaigners to provide impartial policy analysis of their positions, to help voters to make informed choices about who to lend their support to (Crines, 2019, p. 312). Finally, Renwick and Palese make important observations about the promotion of quality discussion, especially in relation to citizens’ engagement in deliberative processes and how political debates are framed. They draw attention on how referendums’ questions are set and the impact this has on sub-questions citizens need answering before they are able to select their response. Moreover, they endorse the establishment of citizen assemblies as means of setting political agendas and promoting citizens engagement.
- Crines, A. S. (2019), ‘Improving Democratic Discourse in UK General Election and Referendum Campaigns’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 90, No. 2: pp. 310–313.
- Henley, J. (2016), ‘Why Referendums Are Problematic – Yet More Popular Than Ever’, The Guardian, 6 Oct. 2016. [Online] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/political-science/2016/oct/06/why-referendums-are-problematic-yet-more-popular-than-ever [accessed 3 Feb. 2020].
- Jennings, W. and Lodge, M. (2018), ‘Brexit, the Tides and Canute: The Fracturing Politics of The British State’, Journal of European Public Policy, Vol. 26, No. 5: pp. 772–789. DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2018.1478876
- New Statesman (2016), ‘Against Neverendums’. [Online] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/05/leader-against-neverendums [accessed 3 Feb. 2020].
- Offe, C. (2017), ‘Referendum VS. Institutionalized Deliberation: What Democratic Theorists Can Learn from the 2016 Brexit Decision’, Daedalus, Vol. 146, No. 3: pp. 14–27.
- Qvortrup, M. (2018), Referendums Around the World. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Renwick, A. and Palese, M. (2019), Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved? London: University College London. [Online]https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/sites/constitution-unit/files/184_-_doing_democracy_better.pdf [accessed 3 Feb. 2020]
- Saunders, R. (2019), ‘The Rise and Fall of British Democracy’. New Statesman, 10 Apr. 2019. [Online] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/04/rise-and-fall-british-democracy [accessed 3 Feb. 2020].
- Shipman, T. (2016), All Out War. The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class. London: William Collins.
- The Economist (2016), ‘Referendum Madness’. [Online] https://www.economist.com/europe/2016/01/14/referendum-madness [accessed on 3 Feb. 2020].
- Tierney, S. (2015), ‘Reclaiming Politics: Popular Democracy in Britain After the Scottish Referendum’, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 86. No. 2: pp. 226–233.
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