Britain has an uncodified constitution. No one is exactly clear – when is it proper for a government to hold a referendum? In the absence of clarity, all seek to take advantage, to the detriment of well-functioning democracy. Consequently, while referendums may be treated as political lifeboats, they can be very bad for democracy, argues Peter Wiggins.
‘Boris Johnson has told friends that a “no” vote is desirable because it would prompt Brussels to offer a much better deal, which the public could then support in a second referendum. [Sunday Times, 28 June 2015, Tim Shipman]
“[A second referendum would be a] disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal,” he said. “Let’s not go there.” [Boris Johnson, 14 February 2018, speech on Brexit to Policy Exchange]
The 1975 referendum, which gauged whether the electorate supported the government’s campaign to stay in the European Community, was Britain’s very first referendum. The Labour Party was bitterly split on Europe, and by calling a national referendum, prime minister Harold Wilson aimed to heal the divide. Wilson, who had himself negotiated the terms of British entry to the European Community, won the vote. Wilson would later claim that the referendum provided “a lifeboat into which the whole Labour Movement could clamber.”
The story of 2016 is not very different. David Cameron had pledged to negotiate a new deal with the European Union and to call a referendum on EU membership on such new terms as he got. He sought once and for all to silence the Eurosceptic rebels in his party. For Cameron too, then, the referendum was a lifeboat, albeit a faulty one. Having lost the referendum, he resigned as prime minister.
Calling a referendum, it turns out, does not have anything, in particular, to do with constitutional principle. Rather, it’s about party management and political strategy.
Nor, it would seem, is a referendum a particularly good way of settling an issue. The ’75 referendum certainly didn’t settle the issue of Europe for long. Nor did the 2016 referendum: in its aftermath, the proposition that “the final deal will have to go back to the people” has built up a head of steam. The pro-European Liberal Democrats included in their 2017 manifesto a commitment to put the government’s deal to a vote of the British people in a referendum “with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper”.
For sure, it is now the remainers we can expect to see campaigning for another referendum. But in fact it’s not so long ago that one rather prominent Leave campaigner was making the same case. In June 2015, the fiercely anti-European Union Dominic Cummings, who went on to run the Vote Leave campaign, argued on his blog, that a second referendum on the deal would offer comfort to those inclined to vote leave but nervous of doing so. As he put it, “it seems likely that the parties will be forced by public opinion to offer a second vote, and therefore this could be turned to the advantage of NO.” Cummings was at least being honest at this point.
The blog made a bit of an impact. For the sake of his own ambition, Boris Johnson took up the idea for about ten minutes. And some political commentators got a bit excited. Simon Jenkins for one was keen. A second referendum, he argued in his Guardian column could “let a new Europe take root”.
At the time, many remainers laughed the idea away. This was the stuff of fantasy, surely. Ex-prime minister Cameron saw no chance of a new lifeboat – holding another vote “was not remotely on the cards”, he said. But remainers are no longer laughing. Now they cite recent polling, which suggests there is popular support for another referendum ‘on the deal’. Constitutional specialist Vernon Bogdanor seems to think it likely: he writes in the Guardian, “In March 2019, Tories may well come to the view that there is a stronger case for another referendum than they currently believe.”
Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Will Britain have another referendum? We might note that the bookies’ odds keep shortening, but it is very hard to know. It is also very hard to know what exactly the electorate would be asked if there was another referendum. Would it be simply “deal” (i.e. the government’s negotiated deal) versus “no deal”? If the electorate voted “no deal”, then would we need yet another referendum – “remain” versus “WTO rules”? Or would the second referendum include, as the Liberal Democrats wish, the option to “remain”? But wouldn’t that seem to undermine the result of the 2016 referendum? At any rate, if it were possible to vote remain, then it would have to be known that Article 50 can be revoked. And so far, no court has been willing to judge on that. So actually, it is not clear whether we can escape Brexit; nor, however, is it clear that any particular version of Brexit has a parliamentary majority. What was conceived as a lifeboat is proving to wreck the ship.
Paradoxical though it might seem, referendums can be very bad for democracy.
What a mess the 2016 EU referendum has made – and what a further mess a second referendum could yet make. The report ‘Brexit and public opinion’ by The UK in a Changing Europe shows how the 2016 referendum has become symbolic of all those issues Britons are divided on. Political identity in the United Kingdom is more and more bound up with the European Union. Increasingly citizens see themselves as ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’. This, the report argues, has the potential to profoundly disrupt our politics in the years to come. A second referendum can seem most unwise. Paradoxical though it might seem, referendums can be very bad for democracy. They pit citizens against one another. By prioritising some areas of policy (e.g. the European Union) above others (e.g. the NHS), they can sap the life out of politics. Since 24 June 2016, nearly all government business appears to have been in a quasi-permanent state of ‘on hold’. Determined as they are to lead with Brexit, the media underplay important stories, letting Brexit dominate. And referendums, by impacting different parts of the country in different ways, can lead to regional resentment. Northern Ireland is no doubt the country most greatly affected by Brexit. Yet 56% of its population voted against.
If it seems as though the politicians and campaigners are making it up as they go along, then that’s because they are. In the Briefing Paper for the 2016 Referendum Bill, MPs were told, ‘The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented’. Yet the British public were told, in a leaflet sent to every household in the country, “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide”. Referendums expose cynicism too. The Liberal Democrats were against the referendum held in 2016; but, having lost it, they now want one. Meanwhile, Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson were in favour of a second referendum; but having won the 2016 vote, they are now against.
If the UK must be a home to national referendums, there are so many important issues that need to be addressed, and the UK would surely do well to codify its constitution. As things stand, no one is clear — when is it proper for a government to hold a referendum? Are there issues on which governments should be required to hold a referendum? And we might ask about thresholds for turnout and/or for the needed majority, as is common in other established western democracies. We might want to consider requiring that for a change to take place via a referendum that that all four of the UK’s nations give it some minimum level of support.
It’s too late to avoid the present mess. But let us not be ruled by misjudged opportunism in the future.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.
Peter Wiggins has a B.A. in Politics from the University of Sussex and a postgraduate diploma in Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. For the last five years, he has worked in public affairs and stakeholder engagement, and he currently works as a consultant at a small charity, the Learning Skills Foundation.
The UK joined the Common Market on 1 January 1973. Edward Heath was prime minister and did the negotiating. Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1974, after the UK had joined.
As well as Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson being in favour of a second referendum before June 2016, but now against, we must not forget the opportunist-in-chief, namely Nigel Farage.
I think it is simple. We the people elect MP’s to make decisions on our behalf. Seeing as we do this then the logical argument is that if these MP’s decide that the decision has such great consequences for the people, they have a vote in Parliament and if they vote for the people to make the decision we have a referendum. If they vote not to have a referendum then they make the decision. This is what we have elected them to do. Seeing as we have had so few national referendums in the country, this process seems to be working well. This also negates your point that the UK does not have the constitutional basis for a referendum result to be implemented. We do not need one the MP’s decided that the result would be implemented and clearly told the people that they had made this decision.
Also I disagree with the statement “What a mess the referendum has made.” The referendum made no mess, the politicians have made the mess and the wonderful result of the referendum is that the incompetence of the political class is seen by all. We need higher quality MP’s with vision and belief in future not the talent less managerial class we have today.
First of all, we should realise that Brexit is the most important crisis facing the UK since the Second World War. The well being of all of our domestic institution depend on a good outcome. Currently, there seems no movement towards a good outcome.
What this piece points out is that we are in uncharted territory here. We have no written constitution. We have had no place in our representative democracy for referenda. We have only had three (or four counting Scottish independence) and they have not caused constitutional problems because people voted for the status quo.
Now we have had a referendum where people voted for massive change. The change they voted for seemed clear, but it is anything but. There are probably not two leave voters who want exactly the same thing.
We really don’t know if the referendum result is binding, technically it is not but the government told us in their “information” leaflet that our decision will be implemented. We don’t know what kind of Brexit our government wants and will be able to negotiate, but it is certain that it won’t be what a majority of those who voted wanted
The referendum was intended to solve the problem of factions in the Tory party, it has not only manifestly not solved that problem, but it has created a mass of new problems. For the 40 odd years we have been in the EU, I have never known whether most of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues were for us being in the EU or no. Perhaps, many of them were not even sure what they thought themselves. But now, everybody has a position. It divides families, friends, workplace relationships.
My own feeling is that the least harm would be done abandoning the current brexit course by revoking article 50. We could then have a cooling off period followed by a constitutional committee made up of all political parties, all interested groups and ordinary people perhaps selected as we select juries. They could look at all aspects of staying in or leaving the EU and report back on what they find. We could play it by ear at that point.
David: I don’t disagree with what you say in general. It’s correct that there is no unified, written statement of a constitution. But there are plenty of bits which are written and which, together, are essentially the constitution.
I would certainly prefer if all these bits were collected and replaced by a formal constitution as a single document; it seems very unlikely that that will happen.
“Referendums can be very bad for democracy… when the results don’t go the way we want it to!”
There. Fixed it for you.
If referendums are such bad things for democracy, explain to me why was it that devolution for Wales was rammed through on the back of a referendum by Tony Blair without so much as a peep from anyone, or why nationalist Scots are still agitating for IndyRef 2 and they were even entertained with IndyRef 1 in the first place by Westminster? .
Come on Andy, that’s a little too facile. What you seem to be saying is that there is no problem with referenda, only with the author not liking the result. Can’t agree with that analysis.
This is the first referendum in which the result mandates constitutional change. If the Scottish referendum had gone for independence, there would have been problems there similar to what we’re having now with Brexit, but without the time limit. But the Scots voted for the status quo, so no constitutional problem.
To reduce complicated political, economic and constitutional issues to a simple yes or no question for the general population to decide has the capacity to cause huge constitutional, political and economic problems, as we are seeing now. Yes, the result is partly t blame, but if you can’t handle that result (and I seriously doubt that we can) then don’t ask the question in that way.
Definitely the referendum is to blame, and those that brought it on.
There were two features of the Scottish referendum that made things slightly easier:
1. There was a clear division of political parties with two completely favour and three completely against. The ruling party was in favour of the Yes vote so it was completely clear who would be implementing the decision. In the case of Brexit, the division is within political parties not between them.
2. There was over 1,000 pages of detailed planning for a Yes vote published and further planning by civil servants that wasn’t published. So people were much better informed about what a Yes vote would mean.
3. Most Members of the Scottish Parliament backed a Yes vote. In the case of Brexit most MP’s were against the result. So we have the problem of MP’s having to implement something they think is completely mad.
Depends on the country. In Switzerland, our whole system (direct democracy) depends on referendums.
I have no doubt that the Conservative party was heading towards support for Brexit as party policy with huge support for Brexit among party members and these members selecting pro-Brexit MP’s.
That then would have allowed the party to have fought a general election on the subject, with a proper manifesto and Civil Servants would have been required to prepare. Those who campaigned for Brexit would then have been responsible for implementing it if that election had been won.
Andy, It might help to distinguish between ‘Referendums can be very bad for democracy’ and ‘Any referendum is bad for democracy’. The author made a case for the first of these two. And he can agree with you that the second is wrong.