The UK's EU referendum is not worthy of our respect

This referendum manifested a profound disrespect for democracy, in the way it was called, in the way the decision thresholds were framed, and in the way the campaign itself was conducted.

Alfred Moore
27 June 2016
Chelsea pensioners at a polling booth. Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Chelsea pensioners at a polling booth. Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.This referendum showed a profound disrespect for democracy.

I'm not just talking about the petty reason David Cameron promised it in the first place. We know he promised this vote with the aim of persuading a few UKIP supporters to vote Conservative in the general election. And when he called the referendum after his improbable election win, he hoped it would resolve the split over the EU within his party. The EU wasn't even in most voters' top five concerns. Initiating a referendum with such fundamental, far-reaching and uncertain consequences was stunningly irresponsible, and it's a stain on Cameron's character. His casual partisanship showed plenty of disrespect for our democracy, but this is already well recognised.

And I'm not just talking about the debate itself over the last few months. This has been the cause of much anguish, but it was entirely predictable, and has been the focus of most of the recrimination. Plenty of the key players, especially Johnson, Gove, Farage, and the tabloid press, have showed disdain for the voters. A mere four hours after it became clear Brexit had won, Daniel Hannan clarified that the Leave campaign never promised to actually reduce immigration. The glibness with which they deny having ever promised what their voters firmly believed they were voting for shows an unbelievable disrespect for those citizens.

The procedure should be designed to generate such a majority. And it has failed.

But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about how Cameron decided the process for the rest of us to decide. The problem was with how this referendum was set up in the first place.

A decision of this magnitude should require a clear, strong and stable majority. The procedure should be designed to generate such a majority. And it has failed.

For one thing, the majority is not clear. Did the UK really vote for Brexit? It's clear that England did. But England is not the UK. For England to decide a UK constitutional question without a formal requirement to meet the majority threshold in all the affected home nations is democratically unacceptable. It is quite rightly being recognised as unacceptable by the people of Scotland. Scotland was considered as a distinct entity capable of voting on the question of its own independence just two years ago. Yet now it is treated as an undifferentiated northern bit of the UK. The question remains: how on earth can an English 'out' be binding on a Scottish 'in'? The answer is simple. It can’t. We might be able to force them out with us, but we can’t pretend it’s democratic or legitimate.

What about a strong majority? Many referenda on constitutional changes require supermajorities. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, for instance, a recent referendum on electoral reform required a supermajority of 60 percent of the voters combined with a simple majority in 60 percent of the provinces. They just missed the threshold. But it was right that it was made more difficult to make such a deep change to the terms of political association. It’s not normal politics. You don’t get to vote anyone out if you don’t like the outcome. You don’t get another chance to make the case. You don’t get to respond to changing facts on the ground. You don’t get to reverse the decision if it all goes wrong. So there is at least a good case for a higher threshold. A supermajority is not the only way, or even necessarily the best way. My point is that this crucial decision was made with barely a thought given to the procedure.

A stable majority? This point has already been made by those who oppose referenda altogether. Real democracy, they think, must always be representative democracy. I disagree. This was not a failing of the idea of a referendum as a democratic device. It was a failure of those in charge of its deployment. Referenda can be vital procedures within representative democracies. But if the resulting decision is not reversible, a change of this magnitude should require a stable and durable majority. What we got was a difference of a few percent on a wet Thursday in June.

Is this just sour grapes? Isn’t this an elitist response to direct democracy? Hasn’t the referendum given voice and power to communities forgotten by our elites? Yes, but more importantly, no. Yes, in the sense that the referendum empowered those excluded from representation. Nearly a fifth of voters chose UKIP at the last election, and they got one MP in return. They basically have no representation. When they say nobody listens to them, the problem is not the moral imagination of metropolitan liberals, but the structural failings of our political system, which cannot represent geographically distributed minorities. If UKIP had been given 80 seats in parliament at the last election, those excluded voters would have had a voice. Then our policies might – just might – have taken their legitimate interests into account. But under our broken system, they couldn't change anything without changing everything.

If the referendum is supposed to be a sort of patch for the structural failings of party democracy, however, then it’s ultimately a failure. The voice and power given by the referendum is fleeting and quickly forgotten. The instruction to 'Leave the EU' leaves everything else up for interpretation and negotiation. Those who were not represented before still have no effective representation. And better represented interests will consequently ride roughshod over them in the negotiations over the meaning of Brexit and the new terms of association with the EU. Referenda will not work as a crutch to compensate for longstanding failures of representation. The angry whites of Wisbech will be bitterly disappointed.

This referendum manifested a profound disrespect for democracy, in the way it was called, in the way the decision thresholds were framed, and in the way the campaign itself was conducted.

We can’t deny it has happened. It is real. We are forced to submit to the decision. But this referendum is not worthy of our respect.

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