Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 31 July 2017

Brexit and Democracy

A constant refrain from politicians and others is that we have to leave the EU because we have to respect democracy, where by democracy they mean that 52% voted to do so. Arguments that the vote was based on lies by the Leave side are met with dismissive remarks like both sides were the same, or what do you expect from politicians and so forth. The important thing, we are told, is to ‘respect democracy’.

In Poland the government recently passed a law which will dismiss all existing judges and allow the state to directly appoint their successors. This government was democratically elected, and the plan was in their manifesto. So why did the Polish President veto the plan, and why was the EU deeply concerned about it? Surely there was a clear mandate for this policy? Shouldn’t the President and the EU respect democracy?

The reason why the President and the EU were right is that democracy is much more than having elections or referendums every so often. Checks and balances, and the rule of law, are crucial ingredients of a well functioning democracy. But having an independent judiciary is not the only essential characteristic of democracy besides voting.

I personally think an important part of democracy is that politicians do not base campaigns on complete lies, and that knowledge, evidence, facts and expertise are respected and are easily accessible to all voters. Otherwise elections can be won by those who tell the biggest lies. If this happens and is not remedied democracy is a sham. As I noted here, lies were central to the Leave campaign (more money for the NHS, Turkey about to join the EU) and have already been shown to be untrue, while the central plank of the Remain campaign (dubbed Project Fear by Leave) has already come to pass. Polls suggest the Leave lies gained them votes. Only one side in the campaign spent a large amount of time dismissing or denigrating academic expertise (be it economists or lawyers).

In the US the Republicans control Congress and the White House, all won by democratic elections where a key part of the Republican platform was repealing Obamacare. The Republicans therefore appear to have an overwhelming democratic mandate for this repeal. So why are so many people protesting against this repeal? Isn’t it important for democracy that repeal goes ahead?

You may say that the Republicans did not say how they would repeal Obamacare, but neither did the Leave campaign say how they were going to leave the EU (or rather they said whatever people wanted to hear). You may say that Leave voters will lose their faith in the democratic system if Brexit doesn’t happen, but the same is surely true for Republican voters if Obamacare is not repealed. That is hardly a reason to do it.

But referendums are not like elections, we are told. Mandates from elections can be challenged but referendum results must be respected. But where is it written that referendum results (particularly those that are so close) can never be challenged? Where is it written that we must be bound by the words of politicians during the referendum.[1] If it turns out that the claims of one side in the referendum have been shown to be false, where is it written that the referendum result should nevertheless be cast in stone for a generation. The answer is nowhere, and for the good reasons that David Allen Green explains. All that is written is that parliament is sovereign.

People overseas, in the EU or outside, are mystified at what the UK is currently doing. The main supporter of Brexit overseas is an authoritarian regime, which should give you a clue about what is going on. There are two overwhelming reasons for challenging the referendum result: it was arrived at after a deeply flawed campaign, and we now have information that clearly shows the extent of the Leave campaign's lies. The Leave campaign abused democracy before the vote with lies, and then abused the word subsequently to stifle any dissent. When a vote is won narrowly in an election based on lies that have now been exposed, it seems to me a hallmark of a functioning democracy is that the original vote is challenged and voters have a chance to vote again.

[1] We could add whether we should be bound by an electorate chosen to keep Brexiteers happy.  


  1. You're quite correct that Parliament is sovereign and an economic shock could be avoided by staying in the EU. The Obamacare analogy is flawed however. US parties do not seek a parliamentary majority that lets them legislate as they like, because the presidency is elected separately.

    They don't have manifestoes or run on them. British parties do, and holding the referendum and implementing the result was a Conservative manifesto commitment. The Tories remain the governing party after the last GE, and the DUP also want Brexit to proceed.

    It would still be fine to change the policy of course.

    The problem now is to convince Leave MPs that Brexit would be so harmful economically that they shouldn't be bound politically by the manifesto, including that the voter backlash from a harmful Brexit is a bigger threat to them than losing votes to UKIP when Remaining would be otherwise.

  2. «Otherwise elections can be won by those who tell the biggest lies. If this happens and is not remedied democracy is a sham.»

    That is nothing more than a variant of the very ancient argument for rule by philosopher-kings who know truth from lie.

    The purpose of democracy is to make voters accountable: if they believe lies they suffer, if they make good judgements they benefit; this gives voters an incentive to be engaged and vote with good judgement.
    When voters who believe lies suffer the consequences that is democracy at its best, not a "sham".

  3. If false and unethical campaigning were a basis for recount, then certainly the last US presidential election has more of a basis for a do over than the Brexit vote. But what makes you think that, if someone cannot accept the truth of global warming (or evolution) that he would accept a revote if facts were misrepresented. I am afraid that, until our Spockian AI overlords evolve themselves, we humans are destined to sleep in the bed we shit in.

  4. I think the irony in your piece is quite unintended but it is there nonetheless. One of the main criticisms of the EU is that they are no respectors of referenda and have a system of "vote until you get the answer right!".I'm afraid this piece comes across as of this type.

    You are right about having another referendum because parliamentary sovereignty does not rule this out. The problem you have of course is that the referendum was itself sanctioned by parliament in the first place. If you are saying that in principle there is no constitutional objection to another referendum I'm sure you are right but why assume - as you do - that the second referendum would not be subject to the same flaws as the first? It could be just as tainted in the terms that you yourself have defined; there can be no guarantee that it would be otherwise. Parliament can surely only facilitate in principle; it cannot guarantee process which is what you are talking about in terms of the flaws you say are now apparent.

    Furthermore, if the result was to Remain, what is to stop the Leavers agitating for a third referendum on the same basis that you are agitating for a second? As I have said there may be more material than you may assume for such a challenge.

    Where does this process end?

  5. «a hallmark of a functioning democracy is that the original vote is challenged and voters have a chance to vote again.»

    That does not depend on whether one of the sides claims that the victory of the other side was due to lies; if it did depend on what, that would be an argument that "philosopher-kings" should declare votes invalid whenever necessary because they know truth from lie.

    A vote is always welcome, whether the previous outcome was due to true or false claims, whenever the voters want it or the rules say it is due, but not merely when "philosopher-kings" declare the previous vote invalid.
    Therefore there are periodic general elections where voters can change their mind, whether the previous vote was won by truth or lies.

    Indeed we had a rerun of the 2016 referendum in the 2017 general election, and the parties that support some form of "Leave" got over 80% of the votes. If the voters wanted to change the outcome of the referendum they would have given a majority to Liberals and Greens in England, just like they gave a majority to the SNP in Scotland, but they did not. Indeed many had predicted a Liberal landslide and a great shrinking of the Labour and Conservative vote, as the 48% of "Remain" minded voters felt unable to support "Leave" parties, but that did not happen.

    And what's the next step? Suppose that before a vote all the sides make true claims; suppose for example that the "Leave" side claimed that exit from the EU would make England lose more sovereignty and independence to the USA (and China), and cost a small but significant amount of potential income, but those would be worthwhile prices to pay to stop the national humiliation of being "just a member" of the EU, with the same rights and duties as any other member, and voters still voted for "Leave".
    Should then the "philosopher-kings" declare that vote invalid, because the voters made the wrong choice despite the true claims?

    1. "Indeed we had a rerun of the 2016 referendum in the 2017 general election, and the parties that support some form of "Leave" got over 80% of the votes."

      You see this again and again, but it simply isn't true. I, and many people whom I trust to tell me how they voted, voted Labour because the local MP was a declared (and voting) Remainer. It sounds cynical to say so but I believe many voters understood that "Brexit is safe in our hands" meant as much from Labour as "the NHS is safe in our hands" means from Conservatives: hypocrisy necessary to allow the party to concentrate on things more important to their leaders.

      Apart from my anecdotal assertion, a review of voters' movements will, I think, show that the swing to Labour was much higher in the South, especially London, where prevailing opinion and Labour MPs tend to be strongly 'Remain' than it was in the North where the former UKIP vote split (as I understand it) more than 80-20 to the Conservatives.

  6. There is also the leave argument that 80% voted for leave in the recent election. This ignores the fact that there was no alternative. Many people I spoke to did not agree with leaving the EU but did not want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, so they had to vote conservative. Also alot of Corbyn supporters liked the extra spending on public services and student loans but did not like leaving tbe EU.
    Alot of voting is being mis interpreted and give as fact. The inconsistencies are being ignored.
    I can not see why a second referendum is so strongy objected to by our elites. If leaving is going to be such a great success then what are the brexit elite so worried about.

  7. The 48.2% of Remain voters in 2016 are a political coalition that does not typically move together; richer Tories, and the better educated on the Left liberal and socialist sides.

    So when I wrote just after the vote that Remain is younger, cleverer, and richer compared to Leave, you could see the problem in 2017 general election when Tory Remainers still largely voted Tory (see Times' readers voting for Tories).

    Leave is not strong, Remain is weak.

  8. Or to put it another way, why should that electorate bind all future electorates?

  9. When Dr. Schauble told Mr. Varoufakis that “elections don’t change anything” he was expressing the true creed of our brave new Europe. The prof has clearly enrolled himself in this campaign for a post democratic future. The cynical bypass of referenda results in France, the Netherlands (twice), Ireland (twice) Denmark and Greece must now be replicated in the UK.

    Parliament voted 6:1 in favour of a referendum. In the largest plebiscite in British history nearly two million more voters opted to leave than opted to stay. Parliament subsequently voted to trigger article 50 by cross party majority of 498 votes to 114. An election was then held in which the remain vote did not switch to the authentic remain parties (Lib Dems & SNP). An amendment to the Queens speech demanding that the UK remain in the single market was then voted down by a majority of 221 in a house where the government + DUP majority was only 12.

    All of this direct and representative democracy has nonetheless been deemed to have failed some newly minted test for democracy. Like old school communists remainers all claim to be democrats and they are mightily affronted when that self assessment is not accepted. But since the democracy they support is also a democracy that has ceased to operate theirs is support that democracy can do without.

    We know that remainers are all honourable people, after all they keep telling us so, but we also know that they have not come to praise democracy but to bury it......

    1. The Schauble quote (which made me cringe when I heard it, too) is, I think, better understood as "Elections do not change economic facts such as the debt burden, the relative wealth of parties or the returns on trade." If a scientist concerned with global warming reacted to the election of Donald Trump by saying "Elections do not change anything" we might think him lacking in tact but not obviously a bully.

  10. I agree with you Simon. The sad truth IMO is that the UK (like the US) is not a functioning democracy. In the case of the UK this is largely because the people are not properly informed about the world in which they live. I worked for many years on European matters and was keenly aware from the early 1990s onwards that the English newspapers did not report or comment accurately on European events. Indeed, I now think this misleading reporting dates from the 1980s. One of the seminal events was Johnson's arrival in Brussels in the late 1980s as the Telegraph correspondent when he started sending back amusing but inaccurate stories. From then on there developed a campaign to denigrate the EU by false reporting and failure to report on positive news coming out of Brussels. The minds of many have been poisoned against the EU by these means.

    Arguably this why it is wrong to respect the referendum result because it would confirm the control of the minds of the English by the real rulers of the UK - the press baron oligarchy - very few of whom ironically live in the UK

  11. there's another democratic deep flaw in the referendum. Two of the groups most profoundly affected by the descision had no say so in the process, the young and EU citizens resident in the EU. A look at the demographics of the vote shows leavers were in the main older - with the least to lose from the effects of Brexit. The argument that under 18s don't have a vote is immaterial. The point of our representative democracy is that the needs and wishes of under 18's should have been considered and factored into the result. The other group are EU citizens living in the UK. Many are only here in the short term but many have a long term relationship with and not allowing these people, who've paid taxes and contributed to national wellbeing, some for decades, to be denied a voice in such a profound issue is a shocking omission. All stakeholders should have been given a voice - the referendum wasn't so much democracy in action as a circus freak show - re-running it would be far less "disrespectful of democracy" than allowing the result we have at the moment to stand

  12. It is quite mistaken to believe that the Leave vote depended on the referendum Leave campaign. Many Leave voters (including me) have recognised the EU as a deeply misguided project for decades. I was dismayed by the referendum Leave campaign and was worried that it would put people off voting Leave.

  13. I have read a large number of articles with a similar viewpoint and have yet to disagree with one of them. As we have seen over the last two governments, it is the politics and the potential gain that may be made for the Conservative Party which has driven us to this point. Which came to an abrupt halt on June 8th.

    I came across this article on Medium, I hadn't read Jason Grainger before, but what he does say aligns to many of your posts.

    I have not studied economics since 1972 when it was only Intro-economics 101. It was all Keynes and Galbraith and the military industrial complex then (this was in Canada, our Prof was a very interesting American draft dodger) Keep it up, as a non-economist, I enjoy them immensely.

  14. Some of the 'lies' told in the campaign were unlikely forecasts put forward for partisan reasons rather than false factual statements. But if we count these as lies then we have from Leave (1) the claim that we would have our gross, not our net subscription back and available for the NHS (2) Turkey could well join the EU in the near future; from Remain (3) the claim that a vote to leave would immediately raise unemployment by 1/2 million (Treasury) (4) the claim that a vote to leave would immediately necessitate £30 bn more tax in an emergency budget (G.Osborne). (1) was shot down before the referendum, the rebuttal getting more publicity than the original claim did. If (2) - (4) are going to be classified as lies, that raises the question of what degree of lying, by how many people, is the threshold at which an election or referendum result should be revisited (and who decides this.). If you simply overturn all results where anyone, however obscure, tells a lie, then you simply overturn all results. And that's before partisans cotton on and start telling lies for the other side so they can challenge the result if they lose. I don't think your proposals are realistic.

  15. Why should such a consequential decision be decided by a mere 50.n of the voting electorate anyway? Why not by 60 or even 65%? Or by in excess of 50% of the total eligible electorate - or by majorities in all counties, or majorites in each of England, Scotland, Wales AND Northern Ireland?

    I also can see no reason why the electorate can't vote on what the final outlines of the deal will be, once they are known.

    And - you forgot to mention that Trump is a minority president, and that more people voted for Dems in House elections than Republicans, but gerrymandering diluted their votes. In the US, they claim that that is democracy too:)

  16. «When Dr. Schauble told Mr. Varoufakis that “elections don’t change anything”»

    Please provide the direct quote from Schauble as to this, because as I remember it was quoted as "elections don't change the facts", which would be quite accurate: voters cannot simply vote themselves a cancellation of debts without consequences, or vote themselves a brexit "having your cake and eating it".

    The only accurate quote I can find is quite different anyhow:
    «Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish vice president of the European Commission in charge of jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, was widely lambasted for his remark in response to Syriza’s victory at the polls that ‘we don’t change our policy according to elections.’ ... with politicians in charge who care only about their own national electorates.»

    Y Varoufakis himself agrees by reporting W Schauble as saying pretty much the same:
    «Schäuble astounded me with a reply that should send shivers up the spine of every democrat: “Elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state!” he said categorically.»

    That's exactly correct: greek voters cannot vote themselves large fiscal transfers from the budget of another member state or from the EU budget. They can only vote themselves large fiscal transfers from their own state's budget, if there is any hard currency in it. This is written in all the treaties that Greece freely signed. It would be indeed quite undemocratic if greek voters could vote themselves funds at the expense of another country's voters without the latter group having voted for them.

    As to the EU budget, the UK government vetoed any use of EU funds to help Greece, and as to the budgets of other states, the USA refused to provide a cent of help to Greece, leaving the entire cost of the greek bailout and debt rollover, on very generous terms, to the eurozone members, mostly Germany, France, Italy.

  17. The simple fact of having a referendum is to get a result, because you don't like the result is neither here nor there. The fact is an albeit a small majority, that is the result.

    I also find it strange that we suddenly believe that certain politicians tell lies, Jeremy Corbyn's massive support base grew because he one of the few politicians that people can trust. Yet Some try to conflate his stance on Europe as either he did not work hard enough for an EU victory, (not of course substantiated by the evidence) or that he secretly wanted the result to go the way it did.

    The truth is that there are things good about the EU just as there are things extremely bad about, if I could remind people who link democracy to their argument for remaining in the EU, that the EU tried to impose TTIP on to its citizens where all discussions were held in secret, not even elected MEPs were involved, and any MEP that was allowed to view the negotiations was escorted into the meeting by an official, who witnessed that they did not make notes of any kind, and was not allowed to inform anyone outside the meeting as to what was discussed.

    Whilst there are some pieces of legislation which benefit us from the EU, most of which we could adopt anyway should we so desire, there is much that in fact has been damaging to us derived by corporate power and instilled market principles that work against not on British people but Europe as a whole. I have made this point before, but all we have to do is look at how Europe treated Greece and the PIGS as a whole, when they fiddled legislation through to to protect the German Banks who own the most debt in Europe.

    Europe is positively unstable, the inherent problem is that all are seperate countries with different economies and the same currency with irreconcilable trade imbalances.....Governed by Neo-Liberal politicians who are not going away soon.

    In short, Europe could be regarded as a Basket Case, and Britain can't do anything inside or outside to change that.

    Finally we are not a trading nation, i.e. we are a net importer of other countries finished goods, so being in the EU has done nothing to improve that position, much promised on entry to it, so what are the benefits of withdrawing, the only thing I would agree with right wing Tories is that we can be free to do whatever we want outside Europe, needles to say we also need to get rid of them in order to create a society that works for people rather than corporate interests.

    Neo-Liberalism is the problem facing the whole world, Europe is stuffed to the gunnels with Neo-Liberal politicains, until Europe gets rid of them, nothing will improve.

  18. «Where does this process end?»
    «Johnson's arrival in Brussels in the late 1980s as the Telegraph correspondent when he started sending back amusing but inaccurate stories.»

    This story never ends properly, and Johnson's ludicrous anti-EU propaganda was influential but it worked because it found a very receptive audience.

    The fundamental issue seems to me that a significant part of english voters feel that for England to be just a member of the EU is a national humiliation, compared to being the owners of a vast and reach English Empire. They will never accept that national humiliation. This is what a moderate "Leave" advocate said as to that, Norman Tebbit:
    It is time that the Brexit campaign seized its chance and set the scene for the debate: it's time for the British to get off our knees. .... Freedom beckons. Will a generation of politicians who have never fought for it betray the many thousands who died for it?

    The strong feeling in big heavy words like "get off our knees" and "betray the many thousands who died for it?" will never go away.
    The people who feel so strongly like that will never give up ruling the English Empire to be "just a member" of the EU. I suspect that a large part of that is emotional overcompensation for the fact that England has surrendered the empire and given control of foreign and military policy and operations to the USA and has become an USA "vassal state".

    The only thing that can change is that the number of those people will shrink as the generations raised in the commitment to imperial rulership pass on to generations who are ready to accept England being an USA "vassal state" without so much pain and realizing the value of an option for greater independence and sovereignty as one of the dominant members of the EU.

  19. I agree with Anonymous at 04:25

    Also, it seems accepted surprisingly widely now that if 50.1% of the votes cast are for policy A and 49.9% for policy Z, then policy A should be implemented irrevocably and in its entirety, and policy Z and those 49.9% of people who supported it be treated as if they do not exist (or count for nothing). Should democracy really be a winner takes all system of this sort? Should there not be discussion, compromise and consensus? A period of debate after which, say, policy K or M is agreed as a compromise solution. It might be argued that this would please neither Aers nor Zers, but then perhaps both just need to grow up, and realise that living together in an ordered civil society with people with other views and values means you can't always have exactly what you want, even if you do form a (tiny) majority. It might also be argued that EU remain/leave is a binary position with no room for compromise, but I think we are seeing very clearly now that that is not the case - many solutions are possible between the hardest of hard Brexits and no change.

    I think a lot of the problems democracy is currently experiencing come down to this abandonment, even denigration, of compromise and consensus.


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