The problem with referendums

An often overlooked problem of the whole Brexit referendum is not the result, but the mechanism that was used to achieve it. The truth is that the United Kingdom is not used to referendums and that has meant that at least part of the crisis that has ensued from the 2016 vote has been how to interpret, contest and implement the result.

Only three referendums have ever been held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom, including the 2016 Brexit referendum. Not only that, but our first past the post electoral system means that the national result at general elections is actually only ever an aggregated result of all the separate constituency votes. In other words, the UK has a highly localised electoral system – and there is very little precedent for any sort of meaningful national vote unlike in many other countries where there are, for example, presidential elections and proportional representation on a national basis (parties are awarded seats on the basis of their percentage of the national vote) .

Of the three referendums that have been held in the UK, two (including 2016) have concerned Europe, and the other was a vitally important vote in 2011 on whether to have proportional representation in UK democracy, which was generally perceived as a wonkish sideshow to appease spineless Lib Dem snowflakes who stood by while Cameron and Osborne implemented blitzkrieg austerity under the false pretences of ‘caring Conservatism’.

The standard issue Brexiteer line on the 2016 vote, which I have heard and despaired at hearing over and over again, is that the leave vote has demonstrated ‘the will of the people’. In reality, of course, with such a marginal result, the 52-48 vote reflected the fact that ‘the will of the people’ was highly conflicted, but marginally in favour of leaving. If it had been a general election, a weak government would be in power with a strong opposition to hold them to account and potentially stymie their legislative programme. I think that anyone who believes in the British democratic system would accept that as the way in which our democracy works. But in the case of the EU referendum, the implication from the leave side is that they feel that they were the victors and as such, and regardless of the intricacies of the result, it has given them a mandate to carry out the process of leaving the EU in a way that they as the victors get to define.  The rhetoric aimed at those seen as standing in the way has been pretty shocking in its invective. ‘Saboteurs’ and ‘traitors’ have become  standard insults to chuck around; while ‘remoaners’ conveys the impression of bad losers – like a football team that lost 1-0 and complained that they were unlucky.

The point, though, is that it is not even remotely like that. The analogy of Brexiteers winning all three points, Jim, and the remainers getting no points, doesn’t wash. This decision affects all of us. And you don’t have to be a slack-jawed, tub-thumping, flag-waving patriot to care about this wonderful, ridiculous, maddening country.

Of course what has happened since the vote has had to be challenged and scrutinised, and, yes, sometimes ridiculed too – even more so because of the marginal nature of the vote. And the scrutiny of the detail has thrown into sharp relief one of the main problems of the referendum: that it proposed a very simple answer (remain/leave) to an incredibly complex question (what as a nation should be the nature of our relationship with the EU?). It is a question that involves an enormous number of intricate details, many with profound implications for the economy and for the lives of both British and European citizens. I agree that the result was important; but I do not agree that it is necessarily decisive – if there is evidence that as a nation we are committing a monstrous act of self-harm that will negatively affect generations to come, then that to my mind makes the marginal nature of the vote even more precarious. Did the electorate understand that when they voted the first time? Should they not be given another vote to either endorse or refute all the horse-trading that has happened since the referendum – detail which was necessarily unknown at that juncture?

A threshold (60% for instance) would have helped to solve this issue of marginality and in the case of the 52-48 result it would have provided the basis for a further period of more detailed debate and potentially a strong case for a second referendum at a later point. But of course David Cameron was too complacent to plan for contingencies – he believed that the vote would extinguish the anti-EU fire threatening to engulf his party once and for all; instead he started an inferno that shows no signs of being quenched any time soon.


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