Was a referendum the best way to settle the Brexit debate
The United Kingdom, as I am sure you’re aware, has just taken part in a referendum on its membership of the European Union, but are they the best way to decide complex issues?
Outside the UK there have been a number of important referendums around the world. Most constitutions and constitutional reforms are validated by a referendum.
There have been also referendums for devolution of powers to regions (e.g. Scotland, Wales and Greenland), for membership in international organisations such as the EU (e.g. Poland and Hungary) and NATO (e.g. Spain). In the Republic of Ireland we have recently seen referendums on the issues of abortion and, most recently, for the legalisation of same sex marriage.
Switzerland's political system is well-known for being the most open in the world to use of referendums. Swiss citizens can demand binding referendums at the local, cantonal or federal level by gaining enough public support (100,000 signatures) for a particular issue.
So far, the Swiss political system has hosted so far near 600 referendums including some highly controversial referendums such as those for the introduction of a universal basic income in 2016.
Here in the UK, those who advocated leaving the EU narrowly won, taking 52% of the vote but with different parts of the UK voting in different ways and different devolved institutions questioning whether or not they will accept the decision, the story is far from over.
With over 33million people voting, and voter turnout 72% the EU Referendum captured the public imagination much more than the 2015 General Election which saw approximately 3 million fewer people cast their vote and a turnout of only 66%.
Whilst certainly a popular form of direct democracy, referendums are not without their critics.
Many feel referendums are simply too demanding on the ordinary voter and it requires too much of a simplification of complex ideas and issues for the outcome to be truly representative of what people feel about a particular issue.
If we take the EU Referendum as an example, this is an issue that involves the United Kingdom’s relations with 27 different countries, trade, immigration, history, politics, economics, currency, people’s personal identities and sense of belonging in the world.
This is even before considering the UK is made up of 4 different nations – each with its own identity, one of which? is freshly out of its own, closely run, independence referendum, one that is in a delicate stage of its own post-conflict history with deep, internal questions about identity and one which, thanks to a huge population imbalance, holds sway over the result of the entire referendum.
Is it really appropriate to reduce all this down to a simple in or out, yes or no. Many would argue it isn’t but, even in voting for elected representatives we often reduce complex issues, even entire manifestos to simple, binary issues – Nationalist or Unionist? Pro-Choice or Anti-Choice? Labour or Conservative? Republican or Democrat?
Despite this, many argue that it is good for citizens to be involved in democracy, however flawed the system, as it means they are having some say in the way their lives are being governed.
As well as being good for the wellbeing of the citizenry, it also lends legitimacy to governments on a local and global level. However, it is not as pure and open a form of democracy as many would have you believe.
As we have seen with the EU Referendum, special interests, political manoeuvrings and overall biases can still have a huge bearing on the result. In fact, it is most likely impossible to separate these out.
Overall, referendums are effective in energising populations and getting them involved in the democratic process – political party membership hugely increased following the Scottish Independence Referendum, for example but may be fundamentally flawed when trying to tackle issues such as the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU.
The EU Referendum was sold to the citizens of the UK as a simple in or out, yes or no, and as we have seen from the past few days – this couldn’t be further from the truth.
With the Scottish First Minister threatening a Scottish Veto, the NI Assembly discussing its position and the very nature of the United Kingdom itself seemingly up for debate – a simple yes or no, may not have been the best question to ask in the first place, and maybe a different process altogether could’ve given a clearer answer.
However, alternatives are available.
Deliberative democratic processes such as Citizen Assemblies or Citizen Juries for example have been gaining traction around the world as methods of intensifying the direct participation of citizens in decisions through enhancing the quality of the debate and emphasising common ground and consensus, rather than division.
The exact model varies but typically a group of citizens is selected randomly, controlling for various factors to ensure they are broadly representative of the population as a whole. This group is then given the time, space and information they need to deliberate on the topic over an extended period of time, after which they publish a set of recommendations.
These can either be directly be adopted by government or perhaps be put directly to the population as a whole through a referendum – perhaps one with multiple questions.
If this had been done in relation to the EU referendum for example we might have been able to distil a deeper level of understanding in terms of what citizens actually want in relation to issues like freedom of movement, trade, human rights, sovereignty, etc, rather than boiling it down to an all or nothing choice.
One recent example where such a combination of deliberative democracy and a referendum has been delivered successfully was in the Republic of Ireland in relation to the issue of same-sex marriage.
The referendum on this issue emerged from the Irish Constitutional Convention, a form of Citizen Assembly comprising a combination of randomly selected citizens and elected representatives established to consider various possible changes to the Irish constitution.
One of the conventions final recommendations was to make provision for the legalisation of same-sex marriage – this was subsequently done through a referendum which passed by a margin of 62% to 38%. Arguably, if left to politicians alone, the issue of same-sex marriage would never have made it as far as a referendum and certainly if it had the debate would likely have been much more divisive and fraught.