Is Brexit the will of the people?

In this blog, by Professor Darren Schreiber, we look at the complications surrounding the results of the EU referendum.

Professor Schreiber is a senior lecturer in the Politics department

In the UK, the “Queen-in-Parliament” is sovereign and as a core tenant of democracy we expect our sovereign governments to follow the will of the people expressed in majority rule.  It might seem obvious then that the recent vote for Brexit is the definitive expression of the public will.

While ancient Athens may have used direct democracy, where citizens vote on specific policies, most modern democracies rely on representative government because of suspicions about the tyranny of the majority and other concerns of good governance.

Facing a momentous question, around 10 per cent of the voters still were undecided in the week leading up to the Brexit referendum.  To anyone who studies public opinion, this is not at all surprising.  For a chunk of the electorate, their political attitudes are so changeable that they are the equivalent of mental coin flips.

This instability is not the result of some deep moral failing, but rather a consequence of a lack of practice.  Like learning to ride a bicycle, we are unstable in our political views when we do not have experience thinking about political issues.  As we become more informed and more practiced our views of the political world crystalize and even how our brains think about politics changes.

We might ideally want everyone to be politically informed about all issues, but in politics as in all other domains of our lives we rely on people who can develop practice.  Most of us have friends that we can ask for a basic opinion when issues arise with our plumbing, our cars, or even our health.  And, when those issues are serious, we consult plumbers, mechanics, and doctors.

In the political world, we elect leaders who both represent our political views and help inform us about the complicated issues we face.  They in turn consult with specialists who are knowledgeable about domains connected to the policies to be decided on.  The world is just too complex for any one person to be sufficiently informed about the myriad of complicated problems and their interconnections.  While Leave campaigner Michael Gove may have claimed “people in this country have had enough of experts,” there is just no other good option, even for politicians.

The complication with Brexit is that the UK has expressed its will in some incongruous ways.  In the elections for representatives to the European Parliament, the Brexit oriented party UKIP obtained more votes (26.6 per cent) and seats (32.8 per cent) than any of its competitors, but in the 2015 elections to the House of Commons they got just 12.7 per cent of the votes and only managed to win one of the seats (0.15 per cent).  Less than a quarter of all the Members of Parliament elected came out in favour of Leave.  So while 52 per cent of the electorate may have voted Leave in a non-binding referendum, they filled a Parliament with nearly three-quarters Remain supporters.

The Brexit vote reflects exactly the kind of conflicted and contradictory views that we often find in the general public.  Did this vote mean that the UK should make no deal with the European Union?  Remain connected to the single market?  Rescind the residency rights of EU citizens living in the UK?  Split into separate nations?  With Leave leaders conceding “there is no plan” it is apparent that the referendum was a Rorschach test, rather than a coherent vision.

Writing more detailed referenda or making them legally binding may help with some of the ambiguity, but creates complications of its own as the morass of direct democracy in California demonstrates.  The solution that nearly all modern democracies have converged upon is representatives deliberating in legislatures.  There is already movement afoot to ensure that Parliament is at the centre of any further Brexit discussion.  Prime Ministers, political parties, and Members of Parliament can do a far more nuanced job of discerning the public will and translating it into policy than a referendum ever could.  This is why modern states reject direct democracy and rely on leaders who practice politics daily.


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