The democratic inevitability of a People’s Vote

, by David Reichmuth

The democratic inevitability of a People's Vote
A banner at the People’s Vote march on 20 October 2018. Photo: Ed Everett / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From a democratic standpoint, a ’people’s vote’ should always have been inevitable. But could it avoid the mistakes of the last one? David Reichmuth argues that the June 2016 referendum never expressed the “will of the people”.

I witnessed most of the discussion surrounding the Brexit referendum from abroad in Germany, where I had gone to work after my undergraduate degree in Scotland (I would return to the UK afterwards to pursue my PhD). I followed the debate in German, UK and other international media outlets and was appalled by the quality of arguments being made in the UK and the, often seemingly proudly proclaimed, lack of knowledge on the side of some of its supposed political elite.

The failure of a political class

A moment that epitomised the nature of the referendum debate was during Brexit supporter Michael Gove’s now-infamous TV interview, in which he claimed that Britons had had “enough of experts from organisations with acronyms.” During the same discussion it became clear what his arguments were aiming to do. People who were pro-Remain had done well off the European Union and therefore supported remain at the cost of the rest of the population who, implicitly if not explicitly, had lost out. Facts, models, expert opinion did not matter. Emotion did. “Taking back control” did.

I am sure that everyone also remembers the widely ridiculed Brexit bus which claimed in large letters that the EU cost the British taxpayer 350 million pounds a week and stated that the NHS should be funded instead – the implication being of course that the UK could use those exact 350 million pounds immediately after Brexit day. This claim was of course questioned as demonstrably misleading, at the very least.

Now, both these occurrences are just examples for the pro-Brexit side of the debate. Both were widely criticised and, to a certain degree, countered. But the issue lies not in the lies (350 million) or the crass appeal to emotionalising the discussion in the Brexit debate (Gove), it lies elsewhere: What did these kinds of arguments replace? And this is where I would argue it becomes problematic from a democratic standpoint. What the British population would have deserved in the run up to the referendum was a fact-based discussion of vision and narrative. What they got was a narrative- and ideology-driven discussion of fact.

I have heard friends, acquaintances, and others argue that “both sides lied” when I tried to bring up the question of the leave campaign’s issues with factual debate. While I would be inclined to disagree as to the equivalence of the occasions on which Remain did not get their facts right, this would not improve the situation one bit. If anything, it makes it worse, as the UK voters were forced to go into the referendum with even less of a reliable picture as to what they were actually voting on.

A failure of media

If a voter hoped to be informed by newspapers, TV or other news outlets, they were sadly mistaken. Aside from the fact that the UK seems to have trust issues when it comes to media compared to other European countries, the tradition of news outlets declaring a recommendation for a certain position in elections and referenda could be seen to undermine their necessary task of educating the public. Instead they may seem to be participating in the electoral campaign rather than covering it. While certain outlets may have taken great efforts to maintain an image of impartiality when it comes to reporting, it would stand to argue that it is impossible for a would-be informed citizen to not see them through the lens of their prior declaration.

On the other hand, others may argue, this system is at least honest. Every journalist, and indeed every news outlet, has their own biases and target audience, and by declaring a position they are merely being transparent. While this argument may have some merit, it does little to reduce the risk of increased tribalism, which already seemed and seems so prevalent in the UK’s political landscape. If a news outlet can forego even the semblance of political impartiality it can excusably avoid exposing its readers to dissenting views in ways in which an outlet sworn to impartiality – even if only in lip service – cannot.

While this is an issue that came to play in the referendum debate, and did little to further it, it is an issue intrinsic to British journalistic culture. We can acknowledge its shortcomings and bemoan the role it may or may not have played in keeping an electorate ill-informed. However, change on this front may be unlikely and unwanted. What the media must face criticism for, however, is its role in coverage of EU matters and its inability, or unwillingness, to challenge UK politicians on this matter both in the referendum debate and the decades before.

The UK press has done little to nothing to explain to the public how the EU functions, and how the UK profits from and/or contributes to EU institutions and laws. It has also failed to convey to the UK reader how the country is actually perceived in its interactions with the EU on the mainland. British readers might be surprised to learn that their country is often seen as a selfish troublemaker in the eyes of large parts of a mainland audience, more intent on constantly looking out for its own short-term gain than abiding by the principles of solidarity that underpin the very idea of Europe. This may yet become a problem, even if the UK were to want to cancel Brexit. Currently the rest of the EU seems to be prepared to “take the country back,” but at what point does patience grow thin? Other EU governments have their own voters to consider, after all.

Politicians from all parties in the UK have made it a point over the years to frame interactions with the EU in terms of battles between “us” and “them.” Concessions were fought for in the face of great adversity (rather than compromises and consensus achieved, as was actually the case most of the time). EU achievements were nationalised, whereas UK political failures were shifted to Brussels. Media outlets in the UK did not challenge this perception strongly enough, if at all.

The latter of these issues, as well as some of the others, are not particular to the UK. They exist in many, if not most, of the other EU countries – a failure for which there may yet come a reckoning. But these countries did not have an EU referendum. These countries were not exposed to the same risk the UK was, were not as immediately reliant on the fortitude and principled nature of the fourth estate.

A failure of the electorate? A failure of the EU…

It is debatable whether the UK public itself could have done more. Could more citizens have tried to learn about the EU and its merits? Possibly. But without coverage or politicians’ meaningful debate on the matter that would seem to be an unfair expectation. Should citizens’ movements have done more before and since the referendum to demand answers? Maybe more active citizen participation could have been possible before or during the referendum.

Nonetheless, we should always point out that the campaign for a Peoples’ Vote, a laughable option right after the referendum, has gained an awful lot traction since the referendum with 700,000 demonstrators turning out to demand it in what was one of the biggest demonstrations of the century. So, I do not think the populace can be faulted on this front.

But, as is the case in many other EU countries, we must concede that interest in EU matters has always seemed to be the trait of a minority. Voter turnout for the parliamentary elections is lower than it probably should be, which is problematic for the legitimacy of the European Parliament. Of course, the blame here lies not solely with the electorate. Increased coverage on a national level, and greater engagement from politicians both in the UK and from the EU would, presumably, have been able to contribute easily to greater participation.

However, we may and should ask whether citizens could not, or should not, have taken the lead. Maybe the issue here is that the EU never was, and was never perceived as, a citizens’, but rather a governments’ project. As long as this is not rectified, there will remain a risk of an ever-increasing divide between the voters and the European leadership, which will spell trouble for the Union no matter which way the Brexit problem ends up being resolved.

The next referendum

An ill-informed public was asked to cast a vote between two unclear choices on the basis of a non-existent – in the sense that, for all matters and purposes, it amounted to white noise – debate covered by media that was not equipped or interested to fulfil its dutiful role in shining light on the matter. Is this really in keeping with the ideals of democracy? Should we not acknowledge that blindly picking between two options on a table is about as sensible as flipping a coin? Where is the basis for democratic legitimacy of a decision, if it is made in this manner?

The answer must be that there is none. The last referendum’s result is meaningless, in the sense of providing a solid foundation for future action. It does have immense meaning and weight in other matters though: It is clear how fractious, divided, unhappy the UK has become – or maybe, has always been. But it is unclear what actions to derive from that knowledge.

Uncovering this would involve meaningful debate of a kind that I am not sure the UK and EU political/institutional elites can currently provide. What is clear, however, is that invoking the “will of the people” in order to enforce a Brexit policy is beyond disingenuous. For the position of the UK in relation to the EU, a new debate possibly in combination with a new referendum is, speaking from a democratic standpoint, the only option, regardless of what outcome would seem likely. It would be a mistake to frame the call for a renewed debate in terms of decision-correcting, or changing minds, as this is beside the point, or is part of a whole other discussion. The democratic legitimacy of the last referendum was never there.

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