The “People’s Vote” – A Challenge to Democracy and Liberty

On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom held a historic national referendum on its EU membership. When I dropped my own ballot paper into the box, it had a cross in the Remain a Member of the European Union box. The following morning, I would discover that the side I had voted for, lost. By a ratio of 52–48, the British population who had voted had opted to leave the EU. I was upset, of course: no one enjoys being on the side of defeat. But the people had cast their vote, and, as a long-functioning democracy, that was that. Or so I thought. In this piece, I will briefly look at the history and principles of democracy, before analyzing why a second vote on EU membership, as advocated by the People’s Vote campaign, actively undermines the modern sense of democracy, and liberalism.

Sir Winston Churchill once famously stated that, “Democracy is the worst system devised by the wit of man … except for all the rest.” Churchill was, in his inimitable way, stating a basic fact: democracy is the greatest system of governance of all time. It is unquestionably imperfect. But it is the bedrock of the Western understanding of individual liberty, and for this reason alone, it is vital that it is maintained.

The word “democracy” comes from the Greek demokratia, which is derived from the individual Greek words demos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). Ancient Athens was the birthplace of democracy: Athenian-born male citizens over the age of twenty would meet to vote on absolutely everything. The system was far from perfect, but it was revolutionary. So much so that, after Athens fell to the Macedonian invasion towards the end of the fourth century BC, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that democracy and the concept of citizen-participatory government re-emerged, when Renaissance intellectuals “rediscovered” in Greco-Roman thought alternatives to the rule of religion.

From the Renaissance onwards, the concept of democracy, with its emphasis on political participation, split into two different strands. One school of thought focused on its ability to ensure that no citizen held dominion over another, and put greater emphasis on citizenry. The other school of thought regarded democracy as vital because it accorded a high degree of importance to the individual’s rights and interests. The former idea would be developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels into communism and socialism; the latter would become the basis of Western liberalism and democratic thought.

Perhaps the best understanding of the latter strand of democratic thought, and its intrinsic link with liberty, can be found in the work of John Stuart Mill. One of the fathers of modern liberalism, Mill was an early advocate of many ideas that are now considered social liberal norms, such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and a free press. Mill was also one of the ideological founders of the ethical theory of utilitarianism, the basic premise of which may be summarized as: “that which is good, is that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” Utilitarianism is, therefore, prima facie concerned with individuals and their interests: it is for this reason that governments must be accountable to the people.

Mill realized that democracy was the antithesis of bureaucracy and totalitarianism, and the only form of government that respected citizens’ liberties. For thousands of years, people had suffered under autocratic systems of government from the monarchical to the religious. Now Mill was finally offering a modern, philosophically grounded theory as to why individual liberty was not only important, but vital to any system of government. Mill’s own personal recommendation—representative democracy—and his liberalism, have been adopted in virtually every Western state. Democracy is the underpinning of Western civilization, and it is grounded in the principle of individual freedom.

Representative democracy, with its first-past-the-post voting system, has its flaws, especially in a climate in which the media influences the political economy. But efforts to erode democracy at its most fundamental level, by challenging democratic outcomes for no reason other than the outcome itself, must be repelled at all costs, or we risk destroying the foundations of the most successful system of governance ever tested.
I voted Remain in the referendum. I lost, but democracy (and Leave) won. Two points need addressing here. First, it was a national referendum, and therefore not a representative democratic decision, and this is important, as plebiscite is not our standard way of voting. However, the 1975 decision to apply for European membership was also the result of a national referendum, so it made sense to hold a referendum in 2016, too. Moreover, for a binary in-out decision, holding a popular vote arguably makes sense. In the referendum, people were not voting for someone to represent their interests in government—rather, their vote was a representation of their own interests. But if it had been a representative democratic decision, that would probably not have changed the results. An estimation by the House of Commons Library suggests that, had voting been by constituency, Leave would have won by a landslide. The referendum was therefore well grounded, democratically speaking.

However, we might arguably take issue with the idea that it was an in-out decision. The relationship between the UK and the EU is complex, so perhaps an in-out vote cannot not adequately represent it. What if I wanted to stay in the single market, but leave the customs union? Would this come under Remain or Leave? This is a perfectly legitimate and difficult question. Indeed, it reflects major issues currently being played out in the UK Parliament, from whence Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis have recently resigned because the Brexit plan set out by Prime Minister Theresa May did not ensure a clean enough break from the EU. The simplest answer is that a Remain vote meant the UK would have carried on as it was vis a vis its relationship with the EU, whilst a Leave vote meant leaving the EU entirely. Perhaps more options—for example, staying in the customs union and leaving the single market, or vice versa—would have made the voting process too technocratic and left too many voters dissatisfied with the result. After all, in general elections, citizens also vote for parties, not for individual policies within their manifestos.

Although it was unclear what the implications of a polarized in-out vote would mean after the election, voters knew that, as in every previous democratic decision, the outcome would be final. But what has happened since has been disturbing. Never before, to my knowledge, has the outcome of a vote been questioned in the UK—not on grounds of fraudulence or foul play, but simply by virtue of the result itself. Never before have the press (for example, the Independent)—rather than actively trying to hold the government to account to deliver the will of the people—questioned that will itself.

The idea of a second referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU is now gaining political traction. One of the most popular groups advocating this is called the People’s Vote. The name seems a touch ironic, as it implies that the people have not already had a vote on our relations with the EU—they have, and they voted to cancel our subscription. People’s Vote offer the following description of their campaign: “The People’s Vote campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s Brexit deal is put before the country in a public vote so that we can decide if a decision that will affect our lives for generations makes the country better or worse off.”

Now, the principle that the deal that we agree with the EU should be the best that it possibly can be, and that it should actively deliver on the Leave verdict is ideologically sound. Thus, the People’s Vote might appear to be an honest, well-intentioned campaign to make sure that the government agrees to exactly the right terms of our departure. But this does not seem to be their intention. They have expressed no interest in getting any sort of Leave deal at all. On their page, they list support from exclusively pro-EU groups such as Britain for Europe, Healthier in the EU and Open Britain. If the People’s Vote really wanted to ensure we got the best terms for Brexit, while respecting the referendum result, they could join Brexit pressure groups, lobby MPs and so forth. But why lobby for another referendum? It’s a democratic Trojan horse. By masquerading as an innocent means to “check” on the agreed Brexit terms, the People’s Vote is actively undermining a democratic election. They have no intention of respecting the referendum result. At its core, the People’s Vote is questioning the outcome of a democratic decision, not because it was nefariously meddled with, but because of the result alone. On a fundamental level, the attempt to force a change in a decision that a population has freely and collectively arrived at, is a direct challenge to the freedom of those who have voted, and the system of government they operate under.

Therefore the main issue with the People’s Vote is one of principle. Once we are able to question election results, purely on the grounds of the outcome, we are opening up a truly massive can of worms. Any vote, on anything, could be regarded as objectionable and our freedoms would suffer as a result. There is nothing incoherent about holding a referendum, rather than a representative democratic vote, on the UK’s EU membership; and the polarized in-out voting option was the most logical way of deciding how the UK would continue its relationship with the EU. Moreover, the referendum was free and fair. Therefore, any effort to counter the decision arrived at by the country can only be seen as a challenge to the citizens’ freedom to vote in the first place; as what is the point in giving people that freedom, if it can be invalidated on the grounds on which it was granted? The People’s Vote are advocating, through their campaign, the idea that voters were never free to vote Leave in the first place: the options, as far as they are concerned, were: Remain, or Leave (but, should this option win, we will protest it until it is reversed).

Those who support the People’s Vote might argue that much has changed since the referendum. Brexit is being spoken of more negatively than before; the political climate is different; there is a new Prime Minister, etc. We have not yet left the European Union and the talks are getting a bit messy. Furthermore, there is concern, as there was before the vote, that Brexit might not turn out to be exactly what it was cracked up to be. People may have changed their minds. Perhaps, they might argue, these are good grounds for a second vote, which would actually represent an extension of our freedoms. But a brief analysis suggests that these are simply not good reasons to refute a democratic decision.

First, very little has really changed in the political landscape: there is a new British Prime Minister, but the same people are arguing the same things on the same sides of the Brexit debate. Secondly, we have not left the European Union, and therefore, insofar as the referendum was about leaving, nothing has really changed at all; we are having the same arguments, only now we are having them in the knowledge that we have voted to leave (which, of course, heightens the level of fearmongering). At the moment, Remain is leading in the polls, but, in our current political age, voters are incredibly prone to changing their minds on issues, and are, more than at any other time in recorded political history, likely to be swing voters. If we use opinion polls to decide whether or not to hold second votes on issues, then, in mid-July, the UK should have held a new general election, as the party in opposition, Labour, held a lead in the polls over the incumbent Conservatives. However, not only would this spell absolute chaos, but this way of thinking actively works to undermine freedom: ultimately, no election result would be respected, thus rendering the freedom to vote meaningless. No one yet knows whether leaving will be good for the country. Thus, it seems incoherent to call for a second referendum. Not only do the reasons for a second referendum not stack up ideologically, they are, whether intentionally or not, direct threats to democracy and freedom.

More than a remainer, I am a liberal. If I could go back and change my vote, I would not. I still believe that the UK is better as part of the EU, and especially within the single market. Just like democracy, the EU is imperfect, but this is not a sufficient reason to abandon either of them. Democracy is a system of government we must fight to preserve, and it is under threat. The People’s Vote is the first step towards questioning the democratic process. I’m not suggesting that this will lead to the UK becoming a totalitarian state, but it does mean we are headed down a dangerous path. Leave won and Remain lost. If democracy is to survive, we must respect this outcome, whilst ensuring the government get the best terms for our country. It is to this end that the people of the UK must concentrate their efforts, rather than attempting to erode the defining principle of our system of government.

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  1. The idea that a democratic result should be cancelled because it came to the “wrong” conclusion is horrifying. The ruling class didn’t get their way, is the only “crime” that happened here. Since this is something they are not used to, it must be reversed. Keep voting until the result satisfying to the ruling class is achieved. To Hades with the little people!

    1. Ouch. Spoken like a true culture warrior.

      I think the scariest thing about comments like these is how it shows that the “culture war” of US politics has been successfully implanted into the UK post-Brexit. For decades now, previously Democrat-voting “flyover” states have been converted into solid Republican states through the “othering” of “liberals”. By painting educated urban populations as remote, effete, and possessed of alien values to “real” Americans, the US right has successfully weaponised a cultural narrative that has persuaded voters to vote against their interests for decades.

      And now we’re seeing it deployed as a tactic in the Brexit debate; successfully, as Heike demonstrates.

  2. I’m always struck by this idea that we should treat any democratic vote as fixed and inviolable.

    The reality is, even in a healthy, functioning democracy, which currently the UK is most definitely not, any democratic decision has to be treated as provisional. The whole point of democracy, and the reason it works better than any other system, is that it is capable of adaptation to circumstance. A healthy democracy elects representatives who do not just blindly give in to the passions of the particular moment – they balance values and represent the interests of citizens. The notion that we have to treat any vote as absolute is the argument of an authoritarian.

    I could give you the standard Remainer litany here: advisory vote, unachievable claims, Leave campaign lying and breaking the law etc, but I think a better question to ask is this: at what point does it become permissible for the citizens of the United Kingdom to change their minds? Do we have to wait an arbitrary amount of time – say, five years? Ten? What happens in the (unlikely) event that prominent Leavers are actually prosecuted for their breaking of electoral rules – do we have permission then? What if it becomes apparent that the economic consequences of Brexit are even more dire than our worst fears? Is our suffering mass unemployment, hunger and rioting a good time to draw a line? Who decides?

    I can understand the urge to not want to turn our democracy into a farce of constant referendums, but that isn’t really the most serious problem here. The original sin of the Brexit referendum was that the terms of the debate allowed Leave to essentially say whatever the hell they liked with no consequences – they weren’t forced to actually put forward an actual coherent manifesto that ministers would have to follow. All our problems now stem from this.

    Given the potential horrifying consequences we seem to be accelerating towards, I’m inclined to tolerate making our democracy look a little silly. In truth, that’s already how it looks now, to the rest of the entire world.

    1. I hear echoes of American intersectionality rhetoric in this sentence: “The reality is, even in a healthy, functioning democracy, which currently the UK is most definitely not, any democratic decision has to be treated as provisional.” Just as it is common within the identitarian Left in the US to attack an opponent’s character and immutable characteristics instead of engaging with their argument (“You’re a cis white male, so shut up and check your privilege!”), Daniel attacks the institution of democracy in the UK itself as not healthy or functioning.

      1. Well, Oliver, given that the UK’s entire civil service is currently tied up in attempting to exit the European Union with a minimum of damage (good luck guys), that the government’s ability to actually pass non Brexit-related laws has ground to a halt, that its normal standards of political discourse and behaviour have been thrown out of the window, and given that the rhetoric around politics has taken on a profoundly cultish and poisonous tone, I’d say that stating that UK democracy is isn’t currently in the best shape to be rather uncontroversial. Quite honestly, if anyone here was to seriously contend otherwise, I’d actually be impressed that they possessed to wit to use a computer.

        In any case, I don’t actually understand the point of your argument. Pointing out that institutions aren’t functioning ideally is not the same as attacking the characteristics of a group. But yeah, something something intersectional left.

  3. “At its core, the People’s Vote is questioning the outcome of a democratic decision, not because it was nefariously meddled with, but because of the result alone. On a fundamental level, the attempt to force a change in a decision that a population has freely and collectively arrived at, is a direct challenge to the freedom of those who have voted, and the system of government they operate under.”

    But… that’s, uh, *ridiculous*. Challenging a vote on the basis of its result is one of the most *common* practices in democracy. I would even say it’s essential to democracy to be able to revise democratic decisions. Otherwise how could they have been democratic?

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but what you’re saying – what you’re saying is that if another referendum were called the next day, and the result changed, this would be an “attack” on the former majority? As opposed to an equally democratic result, subject to its own future challenges? This would in fact be totalitarian thinking, the kind that comprises the triggers of so many African civil wars.

    “Remain, or Leave (but, should this option win, we will protest it until it is reversed).”

    It certainly sounds like you’re saying here you would reject the legitimacy of a democratic vote if it came to a different result than you believe “settled”. Despite nothing being settled in a healthy democracy.

    Not being a Briton or European or having any presence in either I won’t pretend to have a personal stake in these debates. Maybe you’re right that holding a second referendum is unneccessary or a bad idea. But my understanding (please tell me it’s a misunderstanding) of your notion of “democracy” should be pretty scary anywhere.

    1. An election result must be “settled” and must never be consteted in a healthy democracy for the period of time between the two elections. Regularly held elections are meant to keep politicians in check and give them a limited amount of time to deliver on the promises. The result of a referendum must be respected indefinitely.

      1. Great, Oliver. Given that our membership of the EU was based upon a decades-old referendum, by that logic, we should never have had the 2016 referendum, as the first should have been respected and followed, you know, indefinitely.

        Thanks for clearing that up for us.

      2. “The result of a referendum must be respected indefinitely.”

        Wow, that’s wrong.

        (I like to imagine Oliver is a pro-Erdogan Turk)

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