Was The Brexit Referendum Democratic?
In “Democracy And Its Crisis” A C Grayling states that the proportion of the electorate that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 UK Referendum was 37%. He also states that the Referendum, the result of which is only advisory, was treated as a mandate by Government. Being only advisory, the Government decided it was not necessary to include the whole of the electorate and so British people living abroad and also European nationals living in Britain, were not given the opportunity to vote.
In discussing the turnout for the 2016 Referendum, the argument was put forward in a discussion I had recently that when people are happy with the status quo they are less likely to vote. Those most motivated to vote are those people who want a change. Few people, including the then Prime Minister David Cameron, believed that the country would vote to leave the EU.
In other European countries the proportion of votes needed for a constitutional change is much higher than that accepted by the UK Government as enough to give them a mandate for the UK to leave the EU.
AC Grayling argues that popularism does not have a democratic imperative. The loudest voices and the misrepresentation of facts and the inadequate explanation of the consequences of leaving the EU all mitigated against good and democratic decision making.
Parliament, with both major parties voting for Article 50, failed to represent the huge number of people, at least half the electorate (63% of possible electors according to A C Grayling), which included a majority of people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and major cities such as London and Manchester who voted for the UK to remain in the EU.
Regardless of all this the Government decided to treat the Referendum result as a first-past-the-post contest . When you consider that the UK has been in the EU since 1972 and any constitutional change will have long-reaching effects and implications well beyond the term of this Parliament, whichever Party is in power in the future, it is beholden on Parliament (the Government in consultation with the Opposition Parties) to fully and fairly, truly represent the context and advice given by the voters in the 2016 Referendum.
AC Grayling argues that there has been a democratic deficit in the 2016 Referendum and in the subsequent interpretation of the result of that Referendum.
3 thoughts on “Was The Brexit Referendum Democratic?”
If we waited for 100% of the electorate to vote our political system would grind to a halt. With regard to “facts” we had a referendum with a yes or No vote. It was not an election with a manifesto of policies
The EU referendum was extremely dubious in a number of ways.
1. The referendum was never intended to be a serious constitutional operation – it was rather a botched party political manoeuvre by David Cameron, who was hoping to win handsomely, and thereby muzzle his Eurosceptic back benchers. I refer to House of Commons Briefing Paper 07212:
“This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. The referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998 are examples of this type, where opinion was tested before legislation was introduced. The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum should be held are set out in its constitution.”
2. The “Leave” campaign was blatantly fraudulent, as most clearly illustrated by the suggestion of saving £350m a week to spend on the NHS, and the claim that Turkey was about to join the EU.
There were also serious legal and constitutional issues. The Electoral Commission has recently conceded that Vote Leave and Darren Grimes – founder of youth group BeLeave – had broken the law by working to a common plan. Both have now been referred by the commission to the police. Vote Leave also acted illegally in donating £620,000 to BeLeave, and £100,000 to Veterans for Britain.
3. The issue is so complex that it was never going to be possible for people to make an informed judgement. Neither side made a serious attempt to explain the issues in depth – for example, we were never told that the EU would remove the European Medicines Agency’s HQ from London, with the loss of 900 jobs.
We accept that in Parliamentary elections we have to choose a party which in general best represents our interests: it is not possible to show our support or dissatisfaction with individual policies, and we leave it to our MPs to make those judgements for us.
David Davis addressing the House of Commons on 22 November 2002 said:
“Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgement. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting……we should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the blanks afterwards”. “Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the Parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it”.
4. It’s not the way we govern this country. For over 300 years we have run a successful Parliamentary democracy, based on the selection of MPs to represent us and our joint interests, and make informed decisions on our behalf. Parliament has on occasions quite rightly run contrary to public opinion in, for example, abolishing hanging, and legalising homosexual relations. Why should we suddenly rely on a highly suspect snapshot of uninformed public opinion to replace such a tried and tested system?
5. In every other political & legal scenario there is the scope for a change of mind. Laws are subject to amendment & even repeal from the moment they are passed. Court rulings and verdicts can be challenged and overturned from the moment they are made. Why should the referendum result be cast in stone? It is worth remembering that, before the referendum, Nigel Farage suggested that if there was a close result, there should be a second referendum!
I refer you again to David Davis, in 2012 this time: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.
6. There are now over 2 million young people who have attained voting age since the referendum. Should they not be given an opportunity to express an opinion? After all, they will have to live with the consequences for much longer than most of us.
It is also worth remembering that only just over one third of the total voting population actually voted to leave the EU!
Now that we are better aware of the massive damage that any form of Brexit will do, we need to be given the opportunity to change our minds.
” …the Government decided it was not necessary to include the whole of the electorate and so British people living abroad and also European nationals living in Britain, were not given the opportunity to vote.”
In the same way, during the Scottish Independence referendum, the ruling SNP decreed Scots living outside of Scotland could not vote nor could some non-Scots living inside Scotland.
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