The Brexit referendum was not democractic.
Those in the chattering classes who are sympathetic to the choice of some of the British people to leave the European Union are starting to insist that it was an act of democratic self-determination, and that those of us (myself included) who think it was an utter disaster that should be stopped by any legal means are violating some kind of norm of democratic respect.
There are a lot of answers that those of us in the stop-Brexit camp might give to that. For example, you might say that democracy is just one of several important political values, and that democratic self-determination sometimes has to give way to preventing national self-destruction. Or you might say that democratic decisions ought not to be given any respect when they’re built on an astonishing cocktail of lies and xenophobia.
Both of those things are arguably true. But I’m not here to argue for either of them.
Instead, I’m here to convince you that the Brexit referendum itself was antidemocratic. Let’s go over how.
The Britons with the most to lose were not allowed to vote
First, and most importantly, the people with the most to lose from Brexit were excluded from the polls. This includes two categories of people: Britons actually living abroad, and young Britons.
Britons abroad were disenfranchised
British voting rules prohibit any British citizen who has lived abroad for more than fifteen years from voting. I take this one personally. I’m a dual US/UK citizen, living in the U.S., and I couldn’t vote. I’ve had no say whatsoever in the decision of others to take the benefits of the European Union away from me.
But maybe you don’t find me all that sympathetic. I’m a dual citizen, already overprivileged in that department. Fine. How about my mom? She is just a U.K. citizen. But she’s lived in the U.S. for a long time. Suddenly, Europe was taken from her too, and she also didn’t get any say in the matter.
But let’s talk about someone even more sympathetic. How about a British citizen who has lived and worked in another E.U. country for fifteen years?
According to Her Majesty’s Government, approximately 2 million (see page 17 of this document) Britons live abroad in the E.U. Anyone who had done so for more than 15 years was disenfranchised, even though the referendum put their legal rights at risk.
How many of those people will have to uproot their lives, kicked out of their homes because of the votes of their fellow citizens? How many would have voted Remain if they were allowed to cast a ballot? Is that democratic?
Young Britons were disenfranchised
In the Scottish secession referendum, sixteen and seventeen year-olds were allowed to vote. And this was the right decision, because this kind of massive, fundamental change to the structure of government has the biggest impact on the young, who have the longest time to live with the changes and who are most vulnerable (for example, because they have less property) to their consequences. As a matter of intergenerational justice, if we must make decisions by referendum, the young should get a vote.
By contrast, sixteen and seventeen year-olds were not allowed to vote in the E.U. referendum.
Those young people who could vote, overwhelmingly voted to remain.
So let’s sum up so far.
- The people with the most to lose from the decision voted to remain; and
- Many of those with the most to lose could have been granted the franchise but weren’t.
How can we ever call such a referendum “democratic?” No wonder that some young people feel betrayed by their elders, who enjoyed the benefits of the European Union then decided to raise the drawbridge for the next generation. And no wonder I, and my fellow British citizens living abroad, feel betrayed by those who live on the Isles.
Democracy is not just “if you can get a majority to vote for it, it goes”
Let’s pretend that nobody had been disenfranchised. Now has the democracy made a decision? Have the masses spoken? Nope. Not even remotely.
Even among those who were allowed to vote, the margin for national suicide was very narrow: 51.9% for leave, and 48.1% for remain. But that’s an incredibly thin mandate on which to base a massive constitutional change, which aims to tear up the existing legal structure by the roots.
How can you make such huge decisions over the opposition of 48% of the people? This is especially troubling when the decision is potentially irreversible — unlike ordinary domestic legal changes, for Britain to get back into the E.U., it would have to have the consent of the other countries, so the people cannot simply undo their mistakes with another vote.
For such a conclusive decision, it should be left to a supermajority. Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement, actually said as much when he thought the vote would go the other way:
The question of a second referendum was raised by Mr Farage in an interview with the Mirror in which he said: “In a 52–48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the Remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.”
(I eagerly wait for Farage to support a second referendum when it came out 52–48 the way he likes. Oh, wait, he’s a lying hypocrite and a demagogue.)
It’s very rare for democracies to make such huge changes based on a simple up-or-down majority vote. Even the citizens in the most populist democracy of them all, Classical Athens, eventually realized that they couldn’t send the city careening back and forth with a simple majority vote (after they repeatedly blew up their city with horrible votes), and made rules requiring major legal changes to pass greater procedural hurdles.
Democratic processes include institutional rules that prevent massive changes like this on bare majorities because, to simplify greatly, the points of democracy are to protect the freedom of all, to serve the interests of all, and to show respect for all — and that doesn’t just mean going with whatever 50% plus 1 say. If, for example, 51% of the public voted to exile the other 49%, we wouldn’t call that a democratic decision, we’d call that tyranny by another name.
Ordinary British democracy means preexisting constitutional structures, like the sovereignty of Parliament, the representative process, and the devolved authority of the Scottish Parliament. Among the many ways other than simple majoritarianism that British democracy can and should be carried out, those are the ways that the British people have chosen — and not just chosen on a single up or down vote on a momentary whim, but chosen over generations of political debate and deliberation and real-world experience.
By contrast, the ordinary British democratic process does not include tearing up the country and rebuilding it again based on a single up-or down vote carried out as the result of a weird bit of political grandstanding.
So what now?
So here we are. A transient majority may have spoken, but the democracy hasn’t. Now there’s a narrow window of opportunity for normal democratic processes in the United Kingdom to get back to work.
Parliament should deliberate and make a decision, like it has for centuries and centuries.
That decision should be informed, but not controlled, by what it can glean of its constituents’ views from this cooked-up referendum.
In taking the referendum into account, Parliament should also take into account the fact that those who had the most to lose were excluded from the franchise.
In addition, Parliament’s decision should be informed by the other things that influence major decisions in representative democracies. Like the real-world consequences of that decision for the people to whom the representatives answer.
That’s how democracy actually works. It’s bloody well time to do some of it.