Isn’t the 2016 EU referendum a clear mandate for the government to take Britain out of the EU?
The short answer is: only if you believe in occasional democracy.
Many people believe in it in the sense that they feel there’s no prospect of anything more than that and it’s understandable that they should see the Brexit vote as a mandate to leave. But those in authority know perfectly well that our current system could easily be reformed to give the public more continuous power and they have no excuse for claiming that result of the EU referendum constitutes a genuine democratic mandate for any specific action.
It seems to be widely taken for granted that the EU referendum gave government a mandate to take Britain out of the European Union. We think that view is only tenable if one believes in ‘occasional democracy’ – i.e. that the will of the people should be (or is) taken into account only on those occasions when ballots are held – and also that it rests on a failure to understand some crucial differences between referendums and parliamentary elections.
True democracy is not about simply obeying the will of the people as it was expressed at one single moment, nor is it about following it blindly as it twists and turns in response to events. Responsible Members of Parliament consider the enduring will of the people they represent and vote according to their judgement on that.
One key feature of our current electoral system is the fact that we always do get another vote. We might have to wait five years but we’re not irrevocably committed to the choice we made at that one moment in time when the ballot was held. With general elections we’re not even committed to wait the full five years: we can agitate for a new election to be called and Parliament can hear us and pass a vote of no confidence.
But leaving the EU is fundamentally different to a general election because we cannot unilaterally reverse the decision. We can plead to be readmitted but, once we commit ourselves to going, it is out of our control.
If a salesman talks us into signing up for a service we don’t really want, the law allows us a cooling-off period in which to change our minds. If we buy something over the internet that we’ve never seen, the law gives us an opportunity to reject it if it doesn’t fit the description we were given. Those laws are based on a recognition that individuals’ decision-making processes are imperfect and are often influenced by misinformation and momentary bias. Should the cautionary principles that operate in the commercial sphere not also apply to our decisions in the political sphere?
But how is Parliament to determine the will of the people when 28% of the electorate declined to vote? A simplistic answer is to dismiss them as apathetic and say that they had their chance and only have themselves to blame if they’re distressed by the result.
But what about the ones who had not yet woken up to the issue emotionally and didn’t vote, not from apathy, but from diffidence, because they recognised that they didn’t understand it well enough to make an informed judgement? (Many of them might in fact have given the question far more thought than some who didn’t actually care but voted anyway, because they were pushed into it by family, friends or the media telling them they had a duty to do so.) A mature society needs to give some thought to how democracy might respect their will.
Respecting the result of the referendum
In any ballot the issue of how abstentions should be regarded is crucial. Most people seem to take it for granted that the 28% who didn’t vote in the EU referendum should be ignored, or assumed to be split in the same proportion as those who did, but that view ignores an important distinction between different types of ballot. And that failure to distinguish imposes an obligation on the electorate to engage actively with questions which they should have the right to delegate to government.
A healthy democratic system should recognise that there are fundamentally different types of decisions and that people’s motivation to engage with the issue at hand depends to a large extent on which type of decision it is.
A referendum is as different from a parliamentary election as a motorway slip-road is from a roundabout. With a roundabout, external factors force a choice between different changes of direction but with a slip-road there is a choice between an unforced change of direction and simply continuing on the established path. The different types of situation make different demands on drivers’ and navigators’ attention. Roundabouts positively require a decision and demand active attention to ensure you’re in the right lane. But slip roads can generally be passed by on autopilot: the navigators don’t need to give the driver explicit instructions to ignore each slip road as it approaches, they only need to be alert when they’re approaching a particular junction they want.
But when there’s a clamour of back-seat drivers, constantly urging that we should take this or that side-road, it’s wholly understandable if the bulk of the navigators disengage and it’s unreasonable to expect them to re-engage for every side road that a vociferous minority wants to go down.
Similarly, different types of ballot affect the electorate’s engagement with the issues in different ways.
In a parliamentary election it’s perfectly appropriate to assume that people who don’t vote are split in similar proportions – because there’s no basis for any other assumption. With a referendum, though, it’s quite reasonable to regard abstentions as a vote for the status quo – especially where there is considerable doubt about which alternative path would be taken. On that basis, the result of the Brexit referendum was that 38% expressed a definite desire to leave, but 62% showed themselves content to stay in.
So was this a situation where the public should have been expected to be alert, should have been expected to have researched the issue and thought about the consequences sufficiently, in advance, to arrive at a considered judgement?
It was widely regarded as a product of internal conservative party wrangling which David Cameron had called as a way of silencing a fractious minority. It’s clear that much of the establishment, both here and abroad, initially took a Remain victory for granted and only woke up to the possibility of a Leave victory in the last few weeks. If people who are fully engaged with the political process could take it for granted it’s not surprising that much of the general public did so too.
The poll we’ve just had has now woken people up to a breadth and depth of feeling in their fellow citizens which many of them were clearly unaware of. Engagement in democratic processes can be purely intellectual but for many people it needs emotional involvement. The Leave camp have had that for years because they have been alienated by the status quo, but many people have only discovered the depth of their own attachment to Europe in the last week. If it is a flaw that we often only discover where our hearts lie when what we value is threatened, then it is a flaw which nearly all of us share and it would be absurd for our political processes not to allow for it.
I said above that failing to distinguish between different types of choice imposes an obligation on the electorate to engage actively with questions which they should have the right to delegate to government. That doesn’t mean that I think this particular issue falls into that category; the depth of feeling on it and the extent to which it is polarised clearly mean that it’s right for the question to be settled by the electorate rather than by Parliament. But that is only clear after the event; if David Cameron’s assessment had been right – if the passion to break away had been confined to a small minority – then it would have been perfectly reasonable for the public to leave it to their elected representatives.
What that means is that the poll we have just had cannot reasonably be treated as a definitive indication of the public will – because it pitted one camp who were fully engaged with the issue against another camp who were half asleep. That poll was needed to wake us all up and it has undoubtedly changed the status quo. It has set us on a path towards disengagement (and in a second binary referendum it would be reasonable for abstentions to count as passive votes for that new status quo) but, in itself, it does not truly answer the question of what the public really wants.
A second binary referendum on the same question, however, would ignore a hugely important factor: this result has not only provoked a constitutional crisis within Britain it has also provoked one within the EU itself. For many people who voted Leave (and for many people throughout Europe who would like to) the unforgivable flaw in the EU is its lack of genuine democratic accountability: it has a Parliament of directly elected representatives but that Parliament appears to have no real authority. It’s quite possible that the EU will now face up to that flaw and put it right and it would be a tragedy if Britain walked away only to see the EU reinvent itself as a true democracy as a result of our vote.
Another central concern, of course, was the issue of Britain’s ability to limit immigration and the EU’s insistence on freedom of movement. Superficially, this appears to rule out Britain’s long-term membership of even a truly democratic EU but we believe a deeper analysis of the issue will allow the two positions to be reconciled. freedom of movement