The Will of the People? Thoughts on Democracy and Referendums in Modern Britain

People’s Vote March, London, June 2018. Photo © Clive Dellard.

A further EU referendum – a People’s Vote on any final Brexit deal – is now on the agenda. As a disastrous No Deal Brexit looms, support for a fresh referendum grows. But referendums are rarely used in Britain. Can a referendum result meaningfully represent ‘the will of the people’? Can referendums reconcile conflict in society in ways that ‘normal’ politics cannot? Can more participation in politics via referendums enhance the legitimacy of government decisions?

These were some of the questions explored in a public roundtable session of a conference “‘The Will of the People’. Constructions and representations of the popular voice from c.1500 to the present day”organised by Bath Spa University and the University of York, 6-7thJune 2018. Speakers at the public session were Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader, Green Party, Robin McAlpine, Director of Commonweal, Dr. John Rees, Co-founder, ‘Stop the War’ coalition, and myself, a Bath for Europe campaigner.

I spoke on democracy and the EU referendum, drawing on responses from people on the street I have spoken with while campaigning for Bath for Europe. On the street we have received plenty of interest and expressions of concern about where Brexit might be heading (including from some moderate Leavers). Numbers signing the petition for a People’s Vote have risen significantly.

But we’ve also faced opposition. ‘You’re undemocratic’, ‘we’ve already had a referendum’, ‘you want us to vote again and again until you get the “right” result’.

Against this we can point to the major democratic flaws of the 2016 referendum. There was no definition of what ‘Leave’ meant, the franchise was limited (excluding many ex-pat British people and tax-paying EU citizens living in Britain), the EU was not a priority issue for the public, the referendum had been called to manage divisions within the Conservative party, there were clear lies by the Leave campaign, and evidence of electoral fraud by Leavers has subsequently emerged.

And if referendums are supposed to reconcile difference, then the 2016 referendum has clearly failed. Two years on, there has been no reconciliation of differences over Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Indeed, the referendum seems to have led to more conflict.

There is also no clear way forward. Even if Britain leaves as planned in March 2019, the nature of Britain’s long-term future relationship with the EU is unlikely to be resolved by then.

So, is another referendum the best way forward?

One answer is no. Britain is a representative democracy and referendums are incompatible with that. As it becomes clear that leaving the EU is not possible without huge damage, it is the responsibility of Parliament and government to step back from the abyss. If party discipline and loyalty – a distinct trait of the British Parliament – is a stumbling block, then the parties should find a way of working together for the country’s future. If they cannot, then the matter should go back to the people via a general election.

There is some support for this on the street. A significant minority of those who would like Brexit to be stopped (or at least are against a Hard Brexit), say that it is up to the government and parliament to sort it out. That is what they are there for.

Against this there is also support for the view that ‘the people must finish what they started’. Any kind of reconciliation across society on this momentous issue can only occur if the people accept or reject any decision made by the government on Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

The problems after the 2016 referendum were not intrinsic to referendums, but because the EU referendum was badly set up. It did not seriously engage with citizens, many of whom had little idea what the EU is, what it represents, how Britain could leave the EU, and what that would mean. If we are to use referendums, they should be accompanied by deeper and fuller forms of participatory democracy.

On the roundtable panel Amelia Womack of the Green Party argued this point by drawing on recent experience in Ireland. A Citizens’ Assembly was set up in 2016 to address some of the most intractable issues facing politicians and society. It is made up of 99 randomly selected representative members of the public with a judge as the chair. Although it has no direct legislative power, it can make recommendations to the government.

She contrasted Ireland’s abortion referendum, which arose from Assembly deliberations, with the UK’s referendum. Via the Assembly, Irish people were able to engage in detail with the issues, consider the different options and the consequences of any law change, and make recommendations to the government. The Assembly recommended a repeal of the 8thamendment of the Irish constitution (criminalising abortion) and a new law defining abortion rights. This required a referendum which took place in May 2018.

Undoubtedly it is a very different issue to membership of the EU. It would be difficult to transplant this directly to Britain and Brexit – if only because there is very little time even with an extension to the article 50 leave date.

But there are lessons to be learned. The people of Ireland went into the referendum with a much clearer idea of the issues and the consequences of the options on the ballot form. And they appear more reconciled with the result.

If there is to be more reconciliation and more effective policy-making in Britain, there needs to be far more thorough and open public deliberation. Public engagement needs to go much further than staged debates in which the most charismatic or loudest are deemed to have ‘won’. In-depth engagement with citizens, such as that achieved by the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, combined with referendums for exceptional issues, can offer a way forward. The legitimacy of democratic government and politics are at stake.

Photo © Clive Dellard.


Ian Bartle

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