Are calls for a second EU referendum democratic?

There are growing calls for a second vote on our membership of the EU. Supporters for a second vote feel wronged by the first, contest its validity, and point to new circumstances. Detractors say that the people have spoken and their will must be carried out. To do otherwise is simply sour grapes by the losing side, and more significantly, would be undemocratic; the people have spoken and their will must be implemented or democracy will have been betrayed.

I thought I’d explore the concept of democracy in this context, to shed some light on what democracy entails and needs to succeed, and whether calling a second vote would enhance or detract from our democracy.

So, what is a democracy? There really is no universally agreed meaning to this. In general, it seems to mean that the people collectively hold some sort of sway over the government of their country, but this has a number of very different manifestations, some deeply flawed. In China, it means each citizen having access to a party official to raise issues. In California, it means a referendum on almost every significant change to the law. In many countries, it means periodic choice of representatives to manage the government of the country. Occasionally, a nationally significant decision that does not span party lines, or perhaps is constitutionally a question reserved for the people as a whole, and therefore cannot be resolved under normal practices, may be subject to a national referendum.

The general consensus among academics is that in its most basic form, a country cannot be considered a true democracy unless it has managed two separate transitions of power between competing groups under a universal suffrage voting system. This is known as the two-turnover-test. By this test, neither Russia nor South Africa would qualify as a fully-fledged democracy, as elections have not yielded different parties of government. Passing this test not only proves that you can change government through a vote, but that there are competing voices freely heard and able to debate ideas.

This shines a light on the single most important purpose of democracy. It is a mechanism to get rid of an unwanted government or constitutional settlement without either side resorting to violence. In a functioning democratic system, a government, having lost an election, feels they can leave power without being killed or imprisoned, and the people feel they have the ability to remove a government without force. Without faith in the system, a government fearing for its safety will invariably enact violent repression to avoid being overthrown, and a populace will resort to violence to remove a government it feels cannot be democratically ejected. It becomes a vicious circle. Where democracy is subverted or abolished, governments find themselves in a cul-de-sac of increasing repression and no ability to climb down, fearing for their safety in the event of losing power. Once a certain point of democratic failure is passed, it is virtually impossible for the government that created the problem to recover the situation. Only the removal of a leader or forceful removal of that government will allow a fresh chance to rebuild faith in the democratic process.

So to function effectively as a democracy there must be faith in the system to be a true and honest reflection of the citizens’ wishes. It is so much more than just the vote.

This faith is sustained by the following principles.

  • The vote. Does the stated result match voters’ intentions? Have the votes all been counted? Did everyone who wanted to and was eligible get to vote? Was the declared count a true reflection of the votes cast? Did voters cast their vote without pressure to vote a certain way?
  • The choice. Were all the options available on the ballot? No matter how fair the vote is at the polling station, if your option is banned for spurious reasons, your faith in the system will be low. Saddam Hussein frequently won 99% or more of the vote by being the only candidate. Nobody doubted the accuracy of the count, but nobody considered this result remotely legitimate either.
  • The information. Was the vote conducted with all citizens having access to accurate information about all the options? In many countries, such as Russia, the vote may be almost entirely fair at the ballot box, but at the same time, almost the entirety of the media is controlled by the current administration. Other candidates are not allowed to significantly campaign, not allowed to be on the TV, and have restrictions placed on their promotional literature. Supporters of a group who were on the ballot but prevented from expressing their manifesto would have very little faith in the system.
  • The debate. Was fair debate allowed? Were people given the opportunity to discuss and contrast the merits of the ideas and people in question? Was all the material in the public realm for open discussion?
  • The level playing field. Are the participants in the election on a level legal playing field, and did they remain within the law that governs it? Is the law exercised independent of government, and are all parties subject to it? Breaking the law counts for little if you are able to avoid the consequences, therefore faith in democracy relies on all parties being equal before the law, and the exercise of law being independent of government.
  • The consequences. Will the decision be irreversible? In the UK, general elections are no more than 5 years apart. The very fact that there are periodic elections is key to each being regarded as legitimate. A government that is regarded as a failure will be held to account at a subsequent election. Democracy is a living and continual contest of ideas, where there should be no permanent victor.

Any government sliding away from democracy tends to start at the bottom of the list and work up. Perhaps by increasing the power or term limits of the president, by neutering the judiciary, by passing tough press laws, by jailing opposition leaders on trumped up charges, by corrupting the electoral commission. See Venezuela or Zimbabwe for how these tactics can work in practice. The act of voting is always the last thing to be cancelled, way after such a vote has lost all meaning through myriad other failings. It is the final fig-leaf of legitimacy when all else has gone. This is why it is right to be deeply sceptical of the vote itself being the single true arbiter of democracy. It is essential, but also meaningless without the other less tangible characteristics. Democracy is therefore not an either/or, but a continuum of systems from completely democratic to not at all. Countries become gradually more or less democratic over time, as the electoral system is eroded or strengthened. Rarely does a nation go from all to nothing in one go.

How does the Brexit referendum stack up against these criteria?

  • The vote. There is no suggestion that there was any meaningful problem with the election vote on the day. All parties would agree that the figures stated the following day are an absolutely accurate reflection of the votes cast and voting intentions.
  • The choice. The question was unambiguous and comprehensive, No voter will have been confused by it, and there were at that stage no other obvious options that could have been inserted.
  • The information. On the face of it, this is a green light for the referendum as well. News broadcasters are required by law to give equal airtime to each camp in situations like this, and a number of debates between leading proponents of each camp were held on national T.V. The print media, mostly read by older people was broadly biased in favour of leaving, whilst online forms of media more heavily used by younger people were broadly biased towards remain. It wasn’t perfect, but broadly it gets a pass. However, this picture is muddied by the considerable illegal overspend by Vote Leave, the official leave campaign, which tilted the volume of the message in favour of their side.[i] (Vote remain did not overspend, but were fined for making a mess of their invoices.)[ii]
  • The debate. It was not just the extra campaign spending but where it went that is problematic here. A large amount of money would appear to have been spent on simply untrue internet advertising, micro-targeted to appear in front of people chosen by algorithm as to be particularly susceptible to it. Not only does this raise significant legal issues over data use, but fundamentally undermines this democratic principle, as it presents arguments that cannot be rebutted, as the other camp is unaware of them to critique them. Without scrutiny, total lies that would easily be exposed as laughable can be presented in a personally tailored way to those calculated most likely to respond positively to them.[iii]
  • The level playing field. By this point, we have a campaign that has overspent when the other side stayed within campaign limits, and spent that money in a way that potentially broke the law, and spread its message in a way that couldn’t be critiqued and tested for validity. The judiciary is strongly independent of government, and these problems will likely be addressed in due course. However, the wheels of justice grind slowly for such complex matters, and the democratic consequences may have fully played out before this happens.
  • The consequences. Since the vote, conditions have changed a great deal. The reality of the situation is becoming clear. Leaving the EU is not one single, simple thing. It is a wide variety of possibilities, from complete break to a small step just beyond the fence, to not leaving. Each will bring a large number of deeply significant consequences, many of which are only now becoming clear, and many of which are categorically in opposition to what was predicted in the referendum. Consequences many and varied, and across many different fields. The information on what leaving means is much more detailed and comprehensive than it was before the referendum. The debate would be significantly different now.

In summary, the previous vote fell short of ideal democratic standards in the following ways.

  • Vote Leave was guilty of a considerable illegal overspend.
  • The money was potentially spent in illegal ways.
  • The money bought material that was used in ways that could not be subject to fair debate.

With a fourth potential shortcoming, arguably the most important, that a result be allowed to stand unchallenged when circumstances significantly change, massively affecting the consequences of that result.

Is this enough to justify a second referendum? Calling referenda and elections too frequently does more damage than good. Decisions have to be given time to play out, and governments will become hopelessly short-termist and damaging if recalled every year. The threshold should therefore be high for another vote.

However, I believe that the threshold has been passed. A vote won extremely narrowly without a level playing field, with un-contestable assertions, through illegal means, combined with a radically different situation more than two years on, a situation whose many specific details have surpassed even ‘project fear’ suggestions, combines to produce a case strong enough to overcome that threshold. This is only increased by the knowledge that if the campaign produces trials and convictions, they may come too late, as the mandate from the flawed vote will have been carried out before the true illegitimacy of the vote is known. Another vote insulates us from that possibility.

I can understand the resistance to this. Many of those who campaigned for and voted for leaving the EU had not been on the winning side of a major national debate for at least a generation. To have that taken away would be a bitter and disillusioning pill to swallow. However, faith in democracy is a fragile thing, and a vote won in a way that risks that faith is not a victory any party should truly want. A victory won by fair means with the facts of the current situation plainly on the table where all can see and appraise them would be far more legitimate, irrespective of outcome. A victory won by foul means, and made irreversible could mark the start of a trend away from democratic ideals. That inevitably leads to a more fractured and violent society, yo-yoing between implacably opposed blocs who are incapable of alternating powers on the basis of their merits, but instead on the basis of their anger, frustration, and motivation to take direct action. A loss of faith in democracy would be the loss of the pressure valve that keeps our society coherent.

Britain needs a vote that all parties can have complete faith in, regardless of the outcome. Another vote would be to the benefit of our democracy, not the detriment.

“Countries which cannot change their minds cease to be democracies.” David Davis




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