Should the Brexit Vote Have Happened at All?

Critics claim British voters were unqualified to decide such a complicated issue. But democracy itself isn’t the problem.

A worker counts ballots in the Brexit vote. (Neil Hall / Reuters)

It’s easy, in retrospect, to characterize David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership as a colossal blunder, at least from the prime minister’s perspective. The idea was reportedly conceived at a pizza restaurant at Chicago O’Hare airport, an inauspicious place to hatch plans of international consequence. Cameron, by many accounts, promised to stage the vote not because he believed in it, or took it especially seriously, or felt the public was demanding it, but because he wanted to appease right-wing “euroskeptics” in his party ahead of the 2015 election. It worked. Cameron won that election, and soon found himself campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union. Then a majority of Britons voted to do just the opposite. A disgraced David Cameron now finds himself without a job and his country temporarily without its bearings, in a jolted world. Blunders don’t get much bigger.

The harder case to make is that Britain’s EU membership was an inappropriate issue to be put to a national vote—that the British people had no business deciding something as complex and consequential as the so-called “Brexit.”

Nevertheless, many have made this very argument in recent days. It’s the subtext of the flurry of articles about panicky Britons regretting their “Leave” vote or Googling “What is the EU?” the morning after the referendum. And it’s what Jason Brennan, an expert on the ethics of voting at Georgetown University, said explicitly on Friday.

“To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit,” Brennan wrote, “one would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.” Most British voters, like most voters everywhere, are “systematically ignorant” of elementary political facts and theories, he lamented, and base their votes on flimsier considerations. (Brennan’s forthcoming book is called Against Democracy.)

In the days since the British referendum, for instance, there have been numerous reports of people describing their backing of Brexit as a protest vote against the Cameron government, not primarily as a request to leave the European Union. And yet, the cumulative effect of such votes has been to push Britain toward the Brexits. Brennan compared holding the referendum to visiting an ill-informed, irrational doctor who forces you, on a whim, to undergo medical treatment. “To force you to follow the decisions [of an] incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust,” he wrote. “But this is roughly what happens in democracy.” He proposes an alternative system in which political power is distributed in proportion to people’s political knowledge.

Never mind that Brennan has set a remarkably high—and decidedly undemocratic—standard for the requisite knowledge to cast a ballot. It’s a bit like saying that to properly vote for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election, you’d need to have, at minimum, a basic understanding of the science of climate change, the history of racial injustice in the United States, the sociology of substance abuse, the politics of immigration reform, the economics of subsidizing early-childhood education, and the neuroscience of curing Alzheimer’s disease. (In the United States, referendums are occasionally held at the state and local levels, but not at the national level.)

For Kenneth Rogoff, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, the issue is less the idea of the vote than the low bar officials established for Britain to secede from a union it’s been part of since 1973. Brexit required merely a simple majority of “leave” votes among the fraction of eligible voters who turned out at the polls. The one-off expression of the people’s will was not buttressed by stipulations that, say, a supermajority of the public approve of the exit, or a second referendum at a later date produce the same result, or a majority in Parliament support leaving the EU as well. A divisive decision with such far-reaching, long-lasting consequences—a nation-defining and potentially nation-fracturing choice—is deserving of more democratic checks and balances, he argued for Project Syndicate.

In Rogoff’s view, democracy itself wasn’t necessarily the problem. But the Brexit referendum “isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics,” Rogoff wrote. “Brexiteers did not invent this game; there is ample precedent, including Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. 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.”

Point taken. But would there have been as much hand-wringing in recent days about the pitfalls of direct democracy, about the ignorance of voters, if the British people had voted to remain in the European Union? If, in Rogoff’s formulation, the gun’s cylinder hadn’t stopped on the bullet? If, as I suspect, the answer is no, then how much of this criticism is really about democracy, and how much is about the critics disagreeing with the verdict of popular opinion?

Britain, of course, is a parliamentary democracy, not a direct democracy. The people elect officials to represent them on policy issues big and small, and national referendums like the one this past week are exceedingly rare. But there is precedent. In fact, one was held in 1975, when 67 percent of voters endorsed the country’s membership in the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union. If Britain’s participation in the European project was worthy of being put to a direct vote in 1975, when the union was just forming, why not in 2016, when that union has grown far more ambitious? As David Cameron put it on Friday, following one of the highest voter turnouts in British history, “on questions about the arrangements for how we are governed, there are times when it is right to ask the people themselves.”

The Democracy Report Asking the people directly may have been particularly important on the question of EU membership, since one of the major critiques of the European Union in Britain, and across Europe, is that its institutions and bureaucrats are undemocratic and unaccountable (this caricature is not entirely fair, but that’s a subject for another article). Deciding the future of Britain’s involvement in the European Union through closed-door negotiations conducted by elites, like Cameron’s with EU leaders in February, clearly proved unacceptable for many Britons who are currently fed up not just with their representatives in Brussels, but also with their representatives in London.

Where I believe British leaders went wrong is not in holding the Brexit referendum per se, but in not taking the exercise as seriously as they should have. There’s a reason Margaret Thatcher once described referendums as “a device of dictators and demagogues.” Referendums, The New York Times notes, often “distill complex issues into a simplistic choice, stoking a harsh type of populism.” When you’re asked to answer simply “yes” or “no” on a complicated policy question, you can’t choose the type of compromise solution that elected representatives often seek. And since governments can stage them at will, referendums tend to be deployed for the sake of political expediency, not the public good.

David Cameron appears to have organized the Brexit referendum for short-sighted political purposes. He declined to make the referendum results legally binding, which is now generating confusion over how to interpret the close vote, along with demands for a second referendum. And certain British politicians cynically manipulated the process, and the public, for their own gain. The “Leave” campaign, for instance, repeatedly pledged to divert millions of pounds that Britain currently sends to the EU toward the National Health Service instead, only for the prominent Brexit advocate Nigel Farage to renege on the promise hours after the vote.

What might it have meant to take the referendum process seriously? It could have meant fortifying the vote with the kinds of checks and balances that Rogoff recommended. It could have meant following the example of the Australian process for constitutional referendums by forcing leaders of the “Leave” campaign, ahead of the referendum, to present voters with a detailed plan for how Britain’s exit from the EU would work. (Instead, the “Leave” camp largely left that vision to voters’ imagination.) It could have meant pausing to clarify the proper role of referendums in Britain’s parliamentary democracy.

“The fact that populists like referendums is not necessarily an argument against them,” Martin Kettle recently wrote in The Guardian. Nevertheless:

Over the past half-century, Britain has drifted into a system of referendums that has few common rules or strict criteria. We talk about referendums being reserved for major constitutional issues, but without defining what such issues are. Sometimes a referendum is binding, sometimes not. … In the UK devolution [of power to regional parliaments] sometimes involves a referendum and sometimes not. European treaties can be subject to referendums but other treaties are not. ...

There may, in certain circumstances, be an argument for referendums in our politics. But the argument has to be better than that we have had some referendums in the past or that a lot of the public would like one. People will always agree they want a say. Yet it is far from obvious that a system of referendums strengthens trust in democracy. … And if an issue is major enough to require a referendum, why is it not major enough to require a high level of turnout or an enhanced majority of those voting, as should be the norm?

Whether or not structuring the vote differently would have produced a different outcome on Thursday (turnout was more than 70 percent, and Brexit passed only by a slim majority), these are the kinds of careful reflections that a decision of this magnitude required. It was possible for the question of Britain’s EU membership to be decided both democratically and deliberately. But if Cameron and other campaigners didn’t take the process seriously enough, the results they now face are very serious indeed.