Those who don't like the referendum result should demand more democracy, not less

Britain's referendum shows the need to deepen democracy, and make it truly deliberative.

Gilbert Ramsay
16 July 2016
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Irish Citizens' Constitutional Assembly, image ibid

Like many people who passionately want the UK to remain in the European Union, I have struggled with feelings of denial about the referendum vote. I wish it hadn’t turned out the way it did. I wish I could magic it away. But it is important to recognise that what happened, happened. British people were told that they would get a chance to vote on a perfectly clear question: whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union. They were told that the decision would be decided on the basis of a simple majority of the British electorate as a whole, including expatriates, but not including those under the age of eighteen or European Union citizens resident in the UK (who voted in the Scottish referendum). The result was that 52% voted to leave.

Since then, wishful thinking about the result, my own included, has been sadly revealing, I think, about the fragility of the democratic commitments of the British intellectual elite, which has managed to exhibit almost every anti-democratic instinct exhibited by elites in fragile and emerging democracies.

One immediate reaction has been to try to second guess the electorate, insisting that those who voted Leave didn’t really mean or understand what they voted for, that they were lied to, or that they voted emotionally – merely wishing to punish the government, not thinking through the actual consequences. But the British public aren’t children. They are adults. And even if such claims are true (it is in fact far from clear that the referendum would have a different outcome if it were rerun tomorrow), one of the major prerogatives of adulthood is the right – within the law – to sometimes make ill-informed and irreversible decisions with potentially terrible consequences for oneself and others. In democratic contests, politicians lie, and voters make bad decisions.

Another set of criticisms has gone after the way the referendum was set up, or the decision to use a referendum to decide a complex policy issue at all. Perhaps the referendum should indeed have required a 60% threshold to overturn the status quo. Perhaps it should have required a majority in all of Britain’s constituent nations. But that horse has bolted.

Others have developed lawyerly arguments that the referendum does not have legal force, calling on either MPs or judges to strike the result down. These arguments may indeed have technical merit. But any such moves would surely be received with the richly deserved contempt of the British public. The damage they would do to the popular trust in British political institutions (such as remains) would be a cure worse than the disease. Moreover, what could more effectively confirm the belief that the EU is an anti-democratic behemoth?

A particularly bizarre twist is a sort of inversion of the tendency to look to a strongman leader to protect the elites from the ignorant masses. Before Boris Johnson’s withdrawal from the Tory leadership contest, some remainers who loathed Johnson nonetheless held out a faint hope that, as prime minister, the very qualities of dishonesty, hypocrisy, cowardice, and snobbery they so hated would mean that he would ride to the rescue of the European cause by failing to pick up the poisoned chalice David Cameron had left him, and his betrayal of the Leave movement would shred its political credibility so utterly as to provide the fig leaf of popular support that would be needed to justify this elite coup against 52% of the public, many of whom hated Boris Johnson anyway.

All of these arguments are dispiritingly familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with how democratic politics works in countries such as Thailand, Egypt, or Turkey: as the masses vote into power politicians believed to be disastrous, corrupt, authoritarian or simply downright incompetent, the liberal-minded middle class develop a surprising faith in the very national institutions they might otherwise rail against in political commentary, satirical novels or rap music.

This can’t be what we want. The EU referendum did indeed represent democracy at its bluntest and, at least on the part of some of its instigators, at its most cynical. But the way forwards can’t be less democracy. It ought to be more and better democracy: democracy at its most sophisticated, empowering and forward looking.

Shortly before passage of the EU referendum bill, two renowned American political scientists, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, argued that the UK should institutionalise procedures of deliberative democracy into the referendum process. Deliberative democracy is a concept which aims to overcome the fact that, in conventional democratic votes, citizens are asked to decide on issues about which they know little, do not know to whom they can turn for accurate information, and in any case have limited incentives to expend time and energy on becoming better informed. In the case of the British referendum, Ackerman and Fishkin proposed that the referendum debates should be accompanied by the mass engagement of British citizens, first in small groups, building up to larger assemblies. The groups would be provided with factsheets with content vetted by both sides, and trained facilitators would help the group to develop questions and focus discussions. Another proposal informed by Ackerman and Fishkin’s work was made by Andy Rynham, who called for a one-off bank holiday ‘deliberation day’ for the referendum.

Had we followed this advice, things might have gone very differently. Fishkin and Ackerman report that ‘deliberative polling’ conducted along these lines on the question of withdrawal from the EU resulted in increasing support of members of the British public to 60% (although support for joining the Euro remained unchanged). But the point is, it’s not too late to do something similar. Clearly, the referendum vote settled very little beyond the immediate question asked of voters. Leave, we now know, had no plan for what leaving the EU would actually look like. Leave voters were motivated by issues which point towards very different settlements: is it really the people’s will to end freedom of movement, whatever the cost? Was the actual motivation to restore ‘sovereignty’? If so, what does this really mean? Was the real idea just to punish an out of touch political establishment? If so, finding some radical new tools for reconnecting citizens with decision making might be part of the solution in its own right. If there is a real appetite for Scottish independence now, what does that really mean? Is it about a genuinely nationalist desire for self-determination, or is it driven more by the hope that breaking the UK is the drastic preliminary needed to radically reform it?

All these complex questions seem to require a form of procedure more powerful and sophisticated than what we are accustomed to. A deliberative approach could mean, for example, setting up a series of jury-style bodies all over the UK, recruited at random but with appropriate representation of the makeup of the population and of its constituent minorities, empowering them to summon expert witnesses, and setting them to spend a year working through all the issues and reporting back. In keeping with the concept of deliberative democracy, it would combine cutting edge insights into political psychology with ideas about the true meaning of democratic governance drawn straight from classical Athens.

Notwithstanding understandable European Union demands for an expedited process of disengagement, Britain should seize the opportunity to renew itself as a sovereign, democratic community. The deliberative process for working out what to do next should be broad, deep, subtle and yet designed to produce clarity and closure. It should operate to a well-defined, but not to a rushed timeline. ‘Patriotic’ Brexiters are bandying about slogans about Britain being capable of being ‘the best in the world’. Let’s not just sneer at that. Let’s try to think of a way to actually set a good example. 

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