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.