Last week the UK held a referendum on whether it should remain a member of the European Union. ‘Leave’ won by a narrow (52%) majority. The aftermath so far involves the resignation of the Prime Minister and consequent leadership election; a leadership challenge within the opposition; an increasingly restive Scotland looking for independence; and large slides of UK stocks and currency.
Contra the balance of the chattering classes (and the great majority of all those in my social media bubble). I think the results of the referendum should be respected, and therefore the UK should leave the EU. 1
The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.
Rousseau – The Social Contract
By and large, one’s attitude to direct democracy waxes and wanes with whether the people vote for the things you want. Supportive referenda are imbued with the finality that the people – surely the highest authority in a democracy! – have spoken. In contrast, regrettable referenda are not the last word: as has been pointed out ad nauseum, referenda have no constitutional force in the UK, and are only advisory. Thus remainers dare to hope that Brexit can yet be defeated in parliament (a large majority of MPs preferred to remain).
However, the current government in our representative democracy was elected on a manifesto that prominently included offering an ‘in-out’ referendum on EU membership, and that it would abide by the result:
We will legislate in the first session of the next Parliament for an in-out referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017. We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on this basis, or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.
Conservative party manifesto (my emphasis)
Given the difficult-to-reverse nature of a ‘Leave’ option, perhaps there should have been further barriers to Leave than a bare majority: a super-majority, repeated referenda several years apart, or a requirement it passes in each constituent nation of the UK, inter alia. Yet to the ardent supporter of representative democracy, this is simply a matter between the parties and the electorate: the former make their proposals on this point; the latter can weigh the relative merits in deciding who to vote for. I imagine further qualifications along these lines would not have been vote-winners.
The elected government offered an advisory referendum (bare majority warts and all) as a decision rule for subsequent parliamentary action. Claiming this is democratically illegitimate entails not only opposition to direct democracy, but opposition to representatives using referenda to guide their decisions even when this would be popular to the electorate. 2
Most of us regard parties who betray manifesto commitments dimly, approximately commensurate to how prominently these commitments were made. Of course, other parties have no obligation to abide by the Conservative manifesto, but the Conservative government and MPs should. For the Conservative government to not subsequently table a bill to leave the EU is a manifesto betrayal considerably worse than the Liberal Democrats on tuition fees. 3 The same applies to a conservative MP not voting with the government – and they have an absolute majority sufficient to drive Brexit 4 (and opposition to leaving is not unanimously held by representatives from other parties).
Contra plebiscites (and contra plebs?)
Suppose a man was in charge of a large and powerful animal, and made a study of its moods and wants; he would learn when to approach and handle it, when and why it was especially savage or gentle, what the different noises it made meant, and what tone of voice to use to soothe or annoy it… But he would not really know which of the creature’s tastes and desires was admirable or shameful, good or bad, right or wrong; he would simply use the terms on the basis of its reactions, calling what pleased it good, what annoyed it bad.
Plato – The Republic
Referenda can be legitimate but nonetheless irresponsible. We may assert many issues are ‘too complicated‘ to be adjudicated by the population. The prevailing norm of whatever irrationalities, prejudices and misinformation exists in the population is not a ‘wisdom of crowds’, and an individual voter cannot be trusted to vote even in accordance with their own interests – leave alone the best interests of all. A referendum just offers people the opportunity to punch themselves in the face.
The technocrats (of which I am in the larval stages of becoming) will do much better. I work in public health, and I dread to see what would result if we made all of our decisions by popular vote. Far better to limit political interference: perhaps ask the population what values they want to see in the health service, and leave the implementation up to us (and perhaps not even that). So too, I assume, other areas of government.
But so too whether to be a member of the European Union? Granted the consequences are dazzlingly complicated: beyond internationalist impulses, I voted remain mainly in fealty to the balance of expert opinion (and – like the average voter – I deem myself better informed than the average voter). Yet issues of wide-reaching importance perhaps should be the subject of referendum in addition to representative democracy: few people find a party that exactly mirrors their view on all issues, and so chosing who to vote into government is usually a compromise. Having a referendum on the key issue avoids the circumstance where the majority are opposed, but voted for the governing party due to agreement on other issues, and thus getting a direct mandate on the question of issue is superior. 5
Whether to become an independent nation is similarly complicated – yet it is anathema to self-determination to claim that the population do not have the final say on whether to be independent (c.f. Scotland). If anything, which party to vote for in the general election is more complicated than the choice presented in the EU referendum: it demands assessing the merits of each party’s view on the EU, as well as on many other similarly complicated issues, and then aggregating across them to select one’s most preferred party overall. If it is irresponsible to ask them to choose in a referendum, is it not similarly irresponsible to ask them to elect representatives?
In any case, I think the average man on the street was competent to vote on the ‘EU question’, and they probably voted rationally in accordance with their convictions. 6
Will of the people [sic]
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Brecht – The Solution
Favourable votes engender paeans to the good sense of the common man. Unfavourable votes – alas – engender an equal and opposite impulse. Both are similarly inaccurate; the latter especially toxic.
It didn’t take long after the results to start castigating sections of the electorate that didn’t vote the right way as democratically incompetent. The ‘grey vote’ tended to vote leave, 7 so we regret enfranchising these people, soon to die, because they availed themselves of the opportunity to spitefully ruin our futures in a pre-mortem Parthian shot (a pity we did not recognize this great democratic injustice at the Scottish Independence referendum two years ago, where the same issue delivered our preferred result). The poorer, less well-educated, and those in lower socio-economic strata also tended to vote leave – cue remarks (often from those previously worried about social justice and iniquities in educational opportunity) about how these trends are proof positive about those voting leave were sufficiently stupid their say should be disregarded.
Among the more sophisticated, the urge to castigate transmogrifies into the urge to reinterpret, to arrogate, and to patronize. The working classes, the lament goes, are left behind by the economy and stagnant or worsening material conditions. Thus the poor impressionable masses turn their ears to nasty ‘populists’ who scapegoat immigrants and the EU for all their woes. Although the vox populi said to leave the European Union, what was really meant was a howl of despair at their economic circumstances. Solve this, and they shall develop informed and enlightened attitudes (i.e. our own).
Yet Remain slightly won on the economy – in the whole population slightly more people thought it would be bad than would be good (albeit they divided much more evenly than economists, who came out strongly on the ‘bad’ side). Via Ashcroft, we find the most important reason to leavers was national sovereignty, with immigration second (other polls put the order the other way around). Leave and Remain voters did divide right versus left, but on social issues: among those who thought multiculturalism was a force for ill, a considerable majority voted leave; out of those who thought it was a force for good, a considerable majority voted remain, mutatis mutandis for other items in the social liberal itinerary (feminism, the green movement) and social liberalism itself. In contrast, the pro- and anti- capitalists divided evenly between Leave and Remain.
Getting from this to the, ‘it was really because they were fed up with being poor’ looks a stretch. 8 By contrast, taking the people at their word is looks more parsimonious. The narrow majority who voted to leave want to keep a nation with absolute control over its own affairs, rather than surrendering some part of this to political apparatus that is not entirely British. They broadly dislike the ‘progress’ of progressivism. They may in part dislike immigration due to economic impacts, but perhaps in greater part they dislike it because they see immigrants as diluting or undermining a British national character they want to preserve.
Given these objectives, voting to leave the EU seems an instrumentally rational means to achieve them. In the same way remainers are confident a vote to leave is a step backwards for the country, they can be confident it is a step in the right direction. Far from being an epiphenomenon of economic woe, it looks plausible that for many voting leave any economic costs would be a price worth paying to move toward these social objectives.
I’m (broadly) consequentialist, so I don’t see any fundamental value in democracy, or some free-standing value in the oft-reified ‘will of the people’. Yet its instrumental value looks considerable: democratic societies tend not to war, tend to be prosperous, and have a good track record of securing the wellbeing of their citizens across most measures. Perhaps this correlation is confounded – democracy emerges as a result of prosperity and social progress, and not the other way around. The story for a direct role is pretty good, though: if the people get to decide on the government, the latter has an interest to act in the interests of the former, and not do something transparently harmful.
Many things in the world are not transparent, and letting the ‘people decide’ can be tantamount to letting the lunatics run the asylum. Perhaps we should dial back people power, and thus representative democracy allows us to have government by second order technocracy: let them get on with deciding things in our interests, and the power of election held over them is a check on them doing anything egregiously bad.
Perhaps. Yet this ethos is particularly challenging when the voting is on values rather than facts about the world. The referendum reveals a deeply divided society, and may yet be the touchstone to a political realignment. Many have found the discovery of a large swell of anti-immigration, anti-internationalist and social conservative sentiment very unwelcome (I sympathize – I now call myself British only with a stutter). One wonders whether the newfound trust now bestowed on the political representatives to decide these matters over and above the popular will represents a belated realization that the political class was always on our side, and could be trusted to broadly follow our agenda – no matter who they were ostensibly representing. (One could also wonder exactly how badly these previously disenfranchised groups will react when even a referendum cannot get them what they want).
I hope that the great majority can be persuaded of the benefits of supranational governance and broad international co-operation, that immigration is usually a matter of mutual benefit, and that Britishness can rise higher than petty paroxysms of parochial prejudice. Until then, I have to find some way of getting along with those who think the opposite. There are alternatives to settling disagreements at the ballot box. They are almost always worse.
It is easy to be a democrat when you know the people are on your side; the arc of history bends towards you; and you see your opponents aims crushed to the lamentations of their pundity. This exhilaration of political power does not distinguish democracy. What does is how you respond when the people are ranged against you; when you see society veer off course; and when they strike against the things you hold dear.
One’s respect for democratic principles (referenda included) should arise in consonance with the understanding that they tend to effect peace, prosperity, and happiness; and are best at producing harmonious government and civil society from often insoluble popular discord. To modulate one’s respect for these principles by the results of a particular instance damages this important political timbre: why should they acquiesce to the majority, if they know you would not do the same?
For all its goods, democracy is not sacrosanct. There are some even more important things for which, if necessary, it should be sacrified. Membership of the European Union is not one of them.
- For whatever it is worth, although it should be irrelevant: I voted remain. I campaigned (albeit briefly) on behalf of remain. I think leaving the EU is disatrous. I would guess it is the worst decision the country has made since the Iraq war, and may be judged by posterity to be the worst in the entire post-war period up until now. I hope not. ↩
- I am unusually confident despite my charitable reflexes arguments here are gratuitously self-serving. Consider this reversal: the Conservatives ran on a manifesto to removing the UK from the EU without any referendum, and won a majority. Be honest: would one really say that was more democratic, and not be on the streets demanding a referendum (which, if a bare majority voted to remain, one would expect the government to honour and not pass a bill to leave the EU anyway)? ↩
- The lib dems could offer in partial exculpation that they were in a coalition government as a junior partner, and could not be expected to honour all their manifesto commitments (to which the reply is that the tuition fees pledge was such a key part of their manifesto – signed pledges and all – that it should have either been one of the last things to negotiate away, or that it should be a ‘red line’ to forming a coalition in the first place). No such excuses present themselves for the Conservatives. ↩
- One reply could be that the use of First Past the Post makes this majority illegitimate – the Conservatives only won 30-ish percent of the popular vote. Perhaps. But the main loser from FPTP was UKIP whose 12.6% of vote yielded 1 seat (on Proportional Representation it would be 82), and UKIP were also keen on an ‘in-out’ referendum. The combined vote share of UKIP and the Conservatives was 49.5%, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens amassed 46.8%. What government would have emerged from this divided popular vote is unclear, and likewise whether an EU referendum would have been one of the horses traded into or out of the plausible coalitions or confidence and supply arrangements (the challenge of holding political parties accountable for what they end up enacting in coalitions and difficulty of decisively voting a party into or out of power are often deemed disadvantages of PR), but it seems fairly likely an ‘in-out’ referendum would have remained on the agenda.
Naturally, a criticism along these lines would only show that in this particular case a referendum was ‘undemocratic’, and such a referendum could be legitimate if it emerged via one’s preferred system of allocating representatives to votes. ↩
- Notably, even UKIP, fairly close to a ‘single issue party’ (leave the EU!) nonetheless proposed a referendum on EU membership in their manifesto. ↩
- A lot has been made over misinformation by the leave campaign. Particularly the ‘350m’ to the EU which could be sent to the NHS, or that it may not reduce immigration in absolute terms. I am not sure these count for much. The UK is a net contributor to the EU (although Remain would say it is a good deal on net), and whether it is 350m versus 200m per week seems unlikely to be material to voters. Likewise having greater control of immigration via release of free-movement obligations within the EU seems preferable for those opposed to immigration, even it doesn’t immediately effect a reduction – one might simply want to be more selective about who ‘gets in’. The accusations about misinformation can go both ways – the chancellors projects of the economic damage are significantly greater than those of most of economic bodies, for example.
Granted, reasonable voters likely should be weighing multiple factors in their decision, so if the economic costs are undersold whilst the changes to immigration are oversold, one could be misinformed (as an extreme example, I doubt many but the most ardent opponents of immigration would vote to leave if it dropped GDP by half). As yet, evidence for result-differing ‘Breget’ is scant. A re-poll projects 1.2m reject voting leave – but 0.4m regret voting remain. ↩
- Although the ‘grey vote’ also tended to vote simpliciter: the absolute proportion of elderly voting to remain out of eligible voters was greater than younger cohorts. ↩
- Granted, leavers tended to be more pessimistic than remainers (but not dramatically so) about their economic prospects. Yet the main split by pessimism was in general rather than economic terms (e.g. ‘Overall, life in britain is worse than it was 30 years ago’). This is hardly incongruent with the other results: the social issues leavers tend to identify as forces for ill have been in the ascendancy over this period. I’d be pretty down on the prospects for my country if the hard right were in government for the forseeable future, even if the economic forecast was incandescent. ↩