The Brexit Plebiscite

The Brexit Plebiscite

Brexit (British exit) refers to the June 23, 2016 popular vote in which a majority of the voters decided that Great Britain should leave the European Union.

Who decided to call the popular vote?
In 2013 PM David Cameron promised to negotiate a new settlement with the European Union. He said that it is time to settle Britain’s relationship with Europe and for the British people to have their say. “[W]e will give the people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice to stay in the European Union (…) or to come out altogether.” He added: “I say to the British people: this will be your decision. And when that choice comes, you will have an important choice to make about our country’s destiny.”

What for?
PM Cameron had to face opposition of the Eurosceptics in his own party and the fact that his party was losing voters to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) under Nigel Farage. So he felt that it was time for him to tackle the divisive issue of Europe (Euroscepticism) in order to win the next elections and to remain in power as PM. That is why in 2013 he pledged an in-out plebiscite, not because he thought that it was time for the people to have a say but because he thought he could use popular support (the plebiscite) as an instrument to secure his power in the government and in his party.

Did it work?
The Conservative Party won the 2015 elections and Cameron remained in power. But after the elections he had to deliver on his promise of a plebiscite. And we know the result: it was Brexit – and Cameron had to go.

Brexit ballot paper
Ballot paper
What type of procedure was it?
Can British citizens call a referendum? No, they cannot. In the UK popular votes are initiated by government, and every time Parliament has to pass a legal act that makes the provisions for a particular popular vote like the one on Brexit in 2016 or the one on changing the voting system in 2011. This means that those in power choose the issue and the voting date (timing) and the wording of the ballot question and the provisions of the popular vote procedure case by case. So according to the European Referendum Act 2015 the Brexit vote is advisory while the result of the vote on changing the voting system in 2011 was binding (see Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act).

A popular referendum is initiated by citizens and refers to a popular vote which decides whether a bill (proposed by Parliament) does become law or not. It is an instrument that gives citizens the right to have the final say about any law made in Parliament, if they choose to do so.

Top-down popular vote procedures are fundamentally different from citizen-initiated procedures. Therefore, to call both types of procedure with the same name – “referendum” – is unfortunate and misleading. That is why I prefer to distinguish between plebiscites, which are driven top-down, and citizen-initiated referendums. Clearly the procedure used to decide whether Britain should leave the EU or remain in it was not a referendum but a plebiscite.

Plebiscites are not designed to empower people (citizens); they are made to serve those in power. We have seen, that in the face of upcoming elections and internal opposition in his party PM Cameron wanted to use the plebiscite as a tool both to win the elections and also to secure his premiership.

Referendums, unlike plebiscites, are made as instruments for the people, enabling them to exercise democracy, to act as sovereign citizens, to make decisions, which is more than simply to elect rulers. To be free and self-determined individually and collectively or rather to exercise freedom and self-determination people need political rights and tools for decision-making like referendums and citizens’ initiatives. These instruments are necessary but not sufficient. Without them we remain unfree and are not living in a democracy.

Does Brexit demonstrate that referendums are bad?
Of course not; how could you draw conclusions about apples when you are actually looking at strawberries? The Brexit vote was a plebiscite, which is another type of fruit than a referendum, and citizens’ initiatives are yet another type of fruit.

All three are popular vote procedures, but they are designed for different purposes and they operate in different ways, and differently under different political conditions. So for a rational discussion of popular vote procedures (“referendums”), one has to distinguish between different types of procedures (see Instruments) and one has to consider the political circumstances in which the procedure takes place.

To illustrate this a little further, let’s have a look at how Martin Kettle described the Brexit vote:

“This referendum was about Britain and Europe. But it was also a disturbing revelation of the way we now do politics. As such it cannot help but be a reflection on David Cameron. This was his show, prepared over years, not weeks. He produced, designed, directed and starred in it. It reflected his way of governing, his model of leadership, his priorities, his politics and his attitude to Europe. And it has been a shabby muddle for which he must take responsibility.”

So, how could this procedure be confounded with a referendum, which is called by citizens and where the voters decide about a bill made in Parliement, either adopting or rejecting it? Well, only if you are not aware that there are different types of procedure and treat all of them as if they were the same, just as Martin Ketttle does in his article which he concludes with a “verdict on referendums [that] should be a ruthless one. Never again.” (Click to read Kettle’s article)

Establishment’s love-hate relationship with democracy
Kettle’s reaction to the Brexit is typical for the ruling elites and their mouthpieces in the mainstream media and academia. Indignation arises among them every time the majority of the people vote against what they feel and consider to be the right and reasonable decision; consequently they declare that ordinary people are incompetent. Every time the people vote as they are told they are lauded by the same elites for their democratic maturity. If the British people had voted to remain in the European Union most pundits and commentators would have written in a different voice.

Kettle accepts that Cameron utilized the plebiscite for his own personal purposes, but he resents that he did it clumsily. “A better leader (…) would have chosen between his dislike of Europe and his desire to be part of it and made the referendum subordinate to that decision.”

Plebiscites are not completely controllable, they have unintended consequences, and their use is not without danger. Under certain conditions they can animate public debates and activate people politically and thereby revive the idea of democracy. To a certain extent this is what happened with Brexit. Ordinary people used the opportunity to have their say and they did not listen to their masters voice any longer but decided based on their own experience and what they perceived was their own best interest. It is the unintended democratic dimension of the plebiscite that upset Kettle. Looking closer, his verdict on “referendums” turns out to be a verdict against democracy, exposing fear of losing everything, anger at disobedient and defiant people and “Hatred of Democracy” (described and analysed by Jacques Rancière in a book with this title).

Kettle takes a top-down view on Brexit (see Two Views on Democracy) which stigmatizes ordinary people as politically incompetent. Examples of such an attitude abound everywhere in our so-called democracies: Thomas Piketty says: “Brexit is irrational and absurd. Jürgen Habermas writes: “What really hit home with observers is the obvious irrationality not just of the result [of this election] but of the entire [election] campaign.” (Note that Habermas uses the terms ‘Wahl’ (election) and ‘Wahlkampf’ (election campaign’) and not ‘Abstimmung’ (vote) and ‘Abstimmungskampagne’ (voting campaign).) For Benjamin Ramm Brexit represents an “unprecedented act of self-sabotage”. In the mainstream media in different countries there are countless articles which present an image of the incompetent citizen to the readers as a response to the Brexit vote. The same phenomenon could be observed many times before, after the Greeks voted No (OXI) to the bailout plebiscite, after the rejection of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe by the voters in France and in the Netherlands, et cetera.

The elite cannot accept that a majority of the people dares to differ. One usual response is to intensify the stigmatization of (direct) democracy. This often takes the form of a defence of “representative democracy”. Here is one example: “In particular, direct democracy, driven by social networks, can only lead to rash decisions of a so-called “people”, influenced by rumors or lies, totally focused on the most selfish and immediate interests. While representative democracy, which is a great step forward in our societies, must allow those in charge to consider, above all else, the interests of future generations.” (Jacques Attali) Kenneth Rogoff wrote that the Brexit vote “is Russian roulette for republics. (…) But, until now, the gun’s cylinder never stopped on the bullet. Now that it has, it is time to rethink the rules of the game.”

Excess of democracy
Brexit came as a shock to Martin Kettle: “[T]his has been the first occasion in my life when I have experienced a peacetime moment more normally associated with war, in which you realise that everything you know may soon and suddenly disappear, the good along with the rotten. In my view the responsibility for that lurching doubt about the future lies not just with Cameron but sits squarely at the door of the referendum process itself.” So the chief culprit for the negative result is a procedure that gives ordinary people a say; this, according to Kettle, instead of solving a problem created additional ones.

All of this is only too well known. The fear of democracy is a recurring theme. We could trace it back through history, to the time of the American revolution when what we today call “representative democracy” was called “republic” and established explicitly to exclude people from participation in government (see Federalist 63).

The idea that we suffer from an “excess of democracy” was at the core of The Crisis of Democracy (1975), a report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki. It basically said that when people become more actively involved in politics government becomes too difficult. That is why citizens participation must be limited and brought under control. Governability requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvment of the people. Consequently, no (direct) democracy please, don’t let the people vote on issues or if you do, make it difficult, increase the hurdles, introduce quorums, exclude important issues from the vote or as Jacques Attali puts it: “There are things which are irreversible in a democracy, that’s called progress.”

Explaining Brexit?
To say that those who voted for leaving the EU are irrational, irresponsible, backward, racist et cetera is not an explanation for the Brexit vote but simply an example of the way in which established groups represent outsiders. The members of a more powerful group tend to consider themselves as superior in relation to the members of a less powerful group. In a representative democracy elites see themselves as competent and ordinary citizens as incompetent. This image of incompetence is then used as an instrument of power by the elites in their struggle against the lower classes and against democracy (for more see The creation of in/competent citizens /topics/concept/the-creation-of-incompetent-citizens/).

In this post, no attempt can be made to explain Brexit or to think about its meaning.

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