Democracy is messy, especially when you don’t respect the concept

By Kent R. Kroeger (August 19, 2019)

At issue in the United Kingdom (UK) over Brexit — UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) — is not just whether the country should leave the EU, but the democratic status of the people vis-a-vis Parliament.

The working assumption about the UK democracy has long been that it is predicated on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty: Parliament has absolute and unlimited power.

The idea of a popular referendum supplanting the will of Parliament, even if authorized by an act of Parliament, is controversial in the UK, evidenced by the fact that only three national referendums have ever been held.

Popular referendums have never been popular among UK’s political class. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to use a referendum to extend his wartime government during World War II, Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee balked, “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism.”

UK elites, including Margaret Thatcher in 1975, have since echoed Attlee’s admonishment of referendums.

So when the majority of UK voters (51.9%) voted on June 24, 2016 to leave the EU, more than a few observers rejected its directive as outside the bounds of parliamentary sovereignty.

“The simple answer to the question as to whether the EU referendum is legally binding is “no,” according to the Guardian’s Haroon Siddiqueln, a senior reporter.

To be binding, Brexit opponents (Remainers) argue the referendum needed to be declared so by the 2015 European Union Referendum Act authorizing the 2016 vote by the people.

“Parliament has deliberately chosen a model which does not involve any binding legal effect,” argued lawyer David Pannick before the Supreme Court in December 2016.

Supporting the No-Brexit-Exit argument, the original parliamentary briefing paper (no. 07212) sent to MPs on June 3rd — 21 days before the actual vote —stated that the “referendum is advisory only. It doesn’t bind either Parliament or the Government to act on its outcome.”

But what MPs understood about the Brexit referendum does not necessarily represent what the people understood when they placed their cross on the ballot — itself offering no indication the vote was non-binding and advisory only:

The vast mount of public opinion polling preceding the 2016 Brexit Referendum didn’t ask about the supposed non-binding nature of the referendum. Neither did the news coverage discuss it. And there wasn’t a surge around date of the referendum vote in Google searches on the term ‘Brexit’ plus either ‘non-binding’ or ‘advisory’ (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Google Searches on the Term ‘Brexit’ and either ‘Non-binding’ or ‘Advisory’

If the 2016 Brexit Referendum was a non-binding vote all along, it was a well kept secret from the people and makes the Remainers, still pushing for its nullification or calling for a re-vote, seem indifferent to the democratic principles at stake should the UK ultimately stay in the EU.

What may be defensible under UK law may still be the wrong decision in light of the message it sends to the people. There is a reason UK citizens trust politicians and government ministers the least of any profession, according to a October 2017 study by Ipsos MORI (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: UK Public Trust in Various Professions (October 2017)

In good faith, the UK went to the polls and voted to leave the EU. And instead of fulfilling the will of the majority, the Parliament and the Government have proceeded to sow chaos and partisan rancor. But it wasn’t a binding referendum, cry the Remainers, who treat democracy like its a game of Simon Says.

The anti-democratic predilection of the UK democracy is understandably discounted by the majority of its citizens. They assume their vote means what it means. If the majority of citizens want something done, they assume it will be done.

Not so.

Whether Labour, Conservative, and Liberal, all UK parties have a hand in the anti-democratic debacle called the 2016 Brexit Referendum. None have risen to the moment to defend the principles of democratic governance. Direct democracy, after all, has never been supported by those in power. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison dedicated 190,000 words to piss on the idea of direct democracy in the U.S.

What has changed since then? Nothing. And the UK is even more disinterested in direct democracy.

Robert Kennedy famously said, “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” When he made this comment, he was assuming people still believed in the general principle of majority rule. When the concept of majority rule itself is abrogated, as it has been in the UK, democracy only gets messier and its support further eroded.

  • K.R.K.

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I am a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion (You can contact me at:

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