So far, Westminster has rejected the idea of a second Brexit referendum because the ‘will of the people’ is to leave the EU. The decision to leave the EU was democratic and, therefore, must be respected.
But this argument is flawed. Here are four reasons why the first Brexit referendum was not democratic.
1. There was no plan
Voters were given the option of leaving or remaining in the EU. But Brexit never meant simply leaving the EU, end of story. It always meant negotiating a relationship with the EU.
Since the referendum, we’ve been schooled in how the EU works. The EU is an economic union, meaning that decisions about economic policy are made at the European level on behalf of member states. The EU is also a single market – there is free movement of goods and labour across member states. It is also a customs union – it decides on external trade relations with other countries as a bloc.
The range of possible relationships that the UK could have with the EU is slightly overwhelming. From a democratic perspective, the important point is that none of this was communicated to the public prior to the referendum. As it was, the public was voting on either maintaining the status quo (remain) or generating massive uncertainty as to what would come next (Brexit).
Brexiteers cry ‘get on with it’. But get on with what? What relationship does the UK want with the EU? This is what Parliament is trying to decide at the eleventh hour. Crucially, from a democratic perspective, this was not decided in the first referendum, so it’s not clear what the will of the people is on this issue.
2. Tyranny of the majority
Majority rules politics drowns out the voices of minorities. Representative democracy is designed to deal with this by having elected representatives who can represent different constituencies and the concerns of all their constituents. Representative democracy encourages deliberation and consensus, or at least compromise.
Sometimes direct democracy is preferable to representative democracy so that all citizens get a say on a topic, rather than the elected representatives. Due to the size of the population in contemporary states, this usually means holding a referendum.
Referenda in some countries have mechanisms built in to ensure that minorities are protected. For instance, some countries specify that a certain percentage of the voting age population has to cast a vote for a referendum decision to be legitimate. Others set a certain percentage of the vote that is required for the decision to be binding. A responsible referendum, at the very least, would ensure that the public has sufficient information about the options, including how the outcomes would affect minority groups.
Part of the problem in the UK is that it does not have a convention of using referenda, so there are few rules in place. There was no discussion about how to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Minorities that will be most affected by Brexit are non-white citizens and immigrants, people with disabilities and medical conditions who are at risk of not having access to medications (at least in the short-term), and younger people.
Arguably, a decision as monumental as deciding whether or not to leave the EU should have required a supermajority – 60% – to ensure that it really was the will of the vast majority of people in order to justify the risk posed to minority groups.
In the first Brexit referendum, 72.2% of the voting age population cast a vote. This was actually a high turnout for a referendum, but most of the voters were older people. A YouGov poll found that only 36% of 18-24 year olds voted. And 20% of this age group had not even registered to vote.
The age groups 18-24, 25-34, 35-44 all voted to remain in the EU. People aged 45+ voted to leave, with the majority of leave voters in the 65+ category. Some have argued that the referendum should have been weighted towards young people. Others argue that 16-18 years olds should have been allowed to vote, as they were in the Scottish referendum, because they will have to live with the consequences the longest.
As it was, there were no safeguards to protect the young, people of colour and the disabled. 4% of the voting age population decided the fate of all of these groups. Majority rules democracy is a poor form of democracy for precisely this reason.
3. Northern Ireland should have been weighted
The SNP argued before the referendum that there should be a “quadruple lock” on Brexit, meaning that all four nations of the UK had to agree to leave the EU.
But the nation that will be most affected by Brexit is Northern Ireland. It is the region that will have a border with an EU state – the Republic of Ireland. And a hard border with the Republic threatens the Good Friday Agreement, which specified that there should be no border checks between the Republic and the North.
Northern Ireland risks returning to violence because of the potential border between the North and the South. Other nations in the UK do not have to contend with a recent civil war and a peace process. Northern Ireland voted to remain and its decision should have been given extra weight.
4. Criminal activities
Thanks to the investigations of Carole Cadwalladr, we know that the Leave.EU campaign broke electoral laws and funded manipulative, social media advertising campaigns. People voted to leave on the basis of the lie that there would be an extra £350 million per week for the NHS.
This was the first referendum in the UK that was manipulated by social media. There were no mechanisms in place to deal with this. The lies that the Leave campaign spread, like the £350 million per week, were not disputed.
A vote that has been manipulated by corruption is not democratic.
It’s not helpful to say that people who voted for Brexit are ‘stupid.’ This isn’t true and there are many reasons why people voted for it. But what is undeniable is that there was a lack of information going into this referendum. There was no clear plan for what the relationship with the EU would look like after Brexit, and the leave campaign was based on lies, manipulations and criminal activity. Also, the constituencies that are going to be most affected by Brexit – Northern Ireland, young people, the disabled, immigrants and minority ethnic groups – were not given extra weight or provided with safeguards. For all these reasons, the first Brexit referendum was not democratic.
A second referendum has the advantage of being based on more information and referring to a specific deal, which significantly enhances its democratic legitimacy. However, there are still no measures in place for dealing with corruption and social media manipulation. Whether or not Northern Ireland, young people and minority groups will have their voices amplified remains to be seen.