Was the Brexit referendum democratic?

In June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union via a popular referendum. Whilst not attempting to challenge this highly unexpected result, I want to analyse its democratic legitimacy, and explore how the entire process could have been improved.

The principal argument in favour of a popular vote was that it was undemocratic not to let the British people speak on such a vital question. The pro-referendum campaign, spearheaded by Nigel Farage, and later embraced by David Cameron, advocated “giving the people a say”.

Yet there are two main concerns with direct democracy. The first is that often people are poorly informed, or biased towards a particular side.

Vast amounts of false information and misunderstanding circulated in the build-up, exacerbated by divided media coverage. An example: Farage infamously alleged that the UK paid £350 million to the EU each week, which would be instead spent on the NHS, later revealed to be untrue. Many people on both sides were influenced by lies and fear, rather than incontrovertible fact. Moreover, the debate became intrinsically linked with party politics – each party publicly picked a side, and, often, large personalities like Boris Johnson dominated headlines, instead of genuine cost/benefit discussion.

Furthermore, no clear Brexit plan was released beforehand – it has since been revealed that there never was one. The currently fraught debate about ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit reveals that nobody was clear on the question: this was never a transparent ‘in/out’ referendum.

The second problem is that a popular vote can allow for the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – a tiny margin of victory giving the winner a huge mandate.

In fact only 37.4% of the eligible British electorate voted to Leave and initiate a profound constitutional crisis. In the days following the referendum, an online petition was created arguing that because the total Leave vote was less than 60%, and the turnout was under 75%, the result was undemocratic. It is plausible that this minimum threshold would have offered greater legitimacy to any result.

Another polemical question surrounded Parliament’s involvement. Should the House of Commons be consulted post-vote? Some feared they would disrupt “the will of the people”. Others, led by Gina Miller, claimed that bypassing Parliament would lend Theresa May too much constitutional power. On both sides, trust in their representatives seemed diminished.

Ultimately, I believe the decision to leave the EU should never have been handed to the people. Yet, we live in a country where Parliament has absolute sovereignty, and when they voted to hold a referendum, they put Brexit in motion and ensured that there is little legal ground on which to challenge its democratic credibility.

Abigail Smith

Abigail Smith

Abigail is a contributor to Common Vision's Brexit Watch bureau of millennial commentators, researchers and analysts. She is currently studying European Social and Political Studies at University College London.
Abigail Smith

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3 Responses

  1. Hilly

    I actually voted to leave the EU because I believe in democracy!! The British people voted to join the EEC not the EU which developed more and more legislation and bureaucracy without any democratic mandate from the people of Europe. I work in social research and have seen the negative side to the free movement of people – for those in Britain with limited work skills it has been a slide to the bottom as the employers have had a greater and greater selection. I have seen people with poor English skills being exploited at work and British workers being excluded from job agencies because they only recruit from Eastern Europe. From my experience and observations the EU has become a bullying organisation, failing to acknowledge the diversity of culture, geography, history and politics across Europe. As a result we have landed up with a one size fits all system with more and more regulations to trip us all up. I believe the EU needs huge reform to make it fit for purpose, accountable and cost effective. If it takes the UK to make a stand and bring about reform – great. I am not anti-European or racist, I just believe in direct democracy.

    1. John Marchant

      Totally agree. My wife has also seen this in not only the UK but in France as well. One size does not fit all without full financial, fiscal and political union, most econists at the time said it would not work without these things first. We are now of course seeing the mess that having the Euro created.

      My Wife who is French just wishes she had a chance to vi=ote in our referendum so she could vote to leave as well, she also worked for the EU for 4 years and so has a little bit more knowledge than many about how it works, or as she says does not work, but just trips along daily, seeing or trying to see off one crisis after the other because they cannot see far enough ahead.

      I find i laughable that now we have all these challenges to Brexit, especially those that say using parlimentrary perogative is wrong and yet every single EU treaty that the UK has signed used exactly that perogative to sign it off, but only now we are using to oppose the EU is it somehow going against demoracy and the rule of law.

      Ye si agree its the ideal time for the EU to get its house in order now the UK is leaving, however listening to some of the noise coming out of the EU i dont think this will happen. As my wife said, you will get the standard asnwer, well we need more EU not less EU because of this.

  2. John Marchant

    Well where to start. The 350 Million so infamously on the side of the bus was nothing to do with Farage at all, it was the Vote Leave campaign, who would not let Farage join if you remember.

    Yes many lies were told and both sides, some of them half truths or indeed speculations. However how is it possible to have a proper debate when many of these truths cannot possibly be known until someone actually leaves.

    Also after 40 years of indoctination i like you were very surprised we voted to leave but also very glad. I was surprised because for decades and especially at school there has been a constant trickle of indoctination of the young. Everything was great and rosy in the EU according to the EU, when those of us in the real world knew this was totally not the case.

    You also have to ask yourself why if this was so important and especially for the young then why did many of then not even bother to vote, estimates between 25-30 % voted on what was a historical turnout. To ad insult to injury they then blame the older generation for stealing their future, laughable at best and to many of us disgusting behavior.

    So far most of the doom predictions have been very wide of the mark so indeed Project Fear has been seen to have been totally wrong, as now akowledged by the BoE and previous Chancellor.

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