In just six years, three referenda have taken place in the United Kingdom. At the same time as the 2010 General Election took place, voters were questioned on the nation’s electoral system. In 2014, the people of Scotland were asked on the future of their ties to the rest of the UK. And this June, Brits took the plunge in voting to leave the European Union.
The grounds for these referenda do seem justified. Political tactics aside, each of the aforementioned issues were matters of great constitutional debate, and of huge national importance. The recent votes have highly encouraged political participation and awareness, with turnout of around 85% eligible voters at polling stations in both the EU and Scottish referenda.
As with many political issues, the leave the European Union has created a great divide throughout Britain. With one million votes crucially deciding the outcome of last month’s referendum, calls for a rethink, as well as a second EU referendum, have been loud. Many voters have signed petitions supporting such a move. Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith has even made advocating for another referendum on EU membership one of his key policies.
There is no denying that the unexpected decision to leave the EU hasn’t been problematic. Sterling has seen a huge depreciation, inflation rates have sky-rocketed, and the Bank of England has implemented great easing measures with haste. Universities have been quick to reassure their Continental students of their place in Britain, and are bracing themselves for an end to the Erasmus exchange programme. In addition, anti-immigration sentiment has proven to have manifested itself across the nation, and Britain is likely to remain wary of the supranational free movement of people for a while to come.
Even if Owen Smith falls short of winning as the Labour party’s new leader, support for a second EU referendum is sure to remain. Last month, huge anti-Brexit protests took place in London, and as many as 4m people signed a petition backing the case for a rethink vote. The Independent reported only days after the Brexit result that over 1.1m Leave voters regretted their decisions, and would have voted in the opposite fashion.
The argument for another referendum is understandable, and does have considerable ballast. As the first member state to leave the EU, Britain has fired a shot blindfolded. After much scrutiny and uncovering of the truth in the weeks which have followed the June vote, it is obvious that a second vote could result in a rather different outcome. Perhaps, had the British public been granted the luxury of hindsight, the vote for an EU exit wouldn’t have materialised.
As much as the sight of the British people turning their backs on one of the world’s strongest economies, a goldmine of extra cash, and the only judicial check upon our government is utterly reprehensible, the result of June’s vote must indeed be accepted. Failing to do so would hugely undermine British democracy. After weeks of albeit slapdash campaigning, the people had their chance to speak. Therefore, why shouldn’t the public mandate for leaving the EU be honoured? Ignoring the will of the national majority would be overwhelmingly undemocratic, and largely unfair.
Granting the public the chance to participate in decision making themselves seems like a wonderful idea at face value. Fully enfranchising everyone this way would remove the need for wily and underhanded politicians, and would give the people absolute sovereignty. The reasons for our representative democracy, however, become clear when referenda go wrong, or when the victory is marginal. Just how and when do such issues become finally settled?
The EU referendum result was marginal, with only two percentage points deciding the victors. But the quality of campaigning throughout the EU referendum has shown how the political class has hijacked the British voters. Many will have voted in favour of a vote to leave in order to escape European bureaucracy, and to – yes, you’ve guessed it – ‘take back control.’ Many of those responsible for Brussels’ unrequited love voted to leave on the basis of racial scaremongering, and were plagued by the classic outbreak of political spin. June’s referendum has shown the very serious problems with referenda, and how politicians managed to play to the fears and factual obliviousness of many Brits. Many would seriously argue that the British people are simply unable to make such difficult decisions, falling into the traps of rhetoric and unintended ignorance.
Moreover, the calls for a second referendum have shown that direct democracy does not, and should not, work in the 21st century political arena. Support for Scottish independence has remained at roughly the same levels since the 2014 vote, but calls for a second referendum have been consistent. When polls show significant support for the cause, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made a revote one of her top priorities, much to the dismay of many Scots. Sturgeon’s biggest problem, though, is how to make a future referendum final, and how to overcome the serious issue of ignoring the already substantial public mandate made only two years ago.
Playing the EU referendum campaign out once more could indeed produce a different result, but would fail to solve Britain’s problems. Leaving such important constitutional issues to citizens is a process that I, as well as many other Brits support in principle. Our willingness to reject the outcome of referenda, however, is more worrying, and can destroy the process in practice. At which point exactly are the people supposed to accept a final result? Switzerland’s direct democracy has created a largely unstable political system. Seeing Britain resort to a similar form of political ping pong would be detrimental to the stability of the country’s legislative system.
If societies are intent on handing absolute sovereignty to citizens, they must be willing to accept the outcomes. Referenda over Scottish independence and the EU have proven problematic in recent years, as they have failed to solve political issues. It looks like the UK’s quandaries with regard to the EU and Scotland could be subjects of much debate and tumultuous campaigning for many years to come.