UPDATE 15/07/2016: The new UK government of Theresa May is now in place, and the faces of Britain’s presumptive negotiating team have been revealed. Eurosceptics have filled some of the key positions: David Davis has been made Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (a.k.a. the new “Brexit Minister”); Liam Fox is in charge of International Trade; and the charmed Boris Johnson has, unexpectedly, been appointed Foreign Secretary.
By making space in her cabinet for Leave campaigners, commentators suspect the new British Prime Minister hopes to heal Tory divisions created by the referendum campaign, as well as to insulate herself from charges that any deal struck with the EU will be a “betrayal” of the referendum vote. Indeed, Theresa May has pledged that “Brexit means Brexit”. But, rhetorical tautologies aside, what does Brexit really mean?
On the face of it, May has a broad mandate to forge whatever kind of deal she wants. The Leave side went out of their way to present Brexit as all things to all people, meaning that a large chunk of the population are inevitably going to be disappointed whatever the specifics of the new EU deal. But because voters weren’t given a detailed plan of exactly what Brexit would look like, was the referendum process flawed? Would Brexit supporters be disappointed if their vote ends up delivering associate EU status, leaving freedom of movement intact and continued British payments to the EU? Or is that the democratic mandate that Theresa May has been given?
One of the candidates in the Labour Party leadership race, Owen Smith, has pledged to offer the British public a second referendum on any Brexit deal once the negotiations are concluded. Would that be a solution? Or would a second referendum be undemocratic?
ORIGINAL 08/05/2015: Margaret Thatcher (quoting Clement Attlee approvingly) once referred to referendums as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues’. They reduce complicated issues down to simplistic ‘yes/no’ questions. They allow elected representatives to abrogate responsibility. They weaken the constitutional protection of minorities and can lead to a ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Critics argue that it is a misrepresentation of constitutional democracy to claim, as South African President Jacob Zuma has, that: “You have more rights because you’re a majority; you have less rights because you’re a minority.”
Yet, in 2009, a majority of Swiss voters decided to restrict the rights of a minority group by banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland (despite there being a grand total of four minarets in the country at the time the ban was enacted).
Most democracies operate according to ‘representative democracy’ – that is, citizens elect representatives who then debate and decide upon issues on their behalf. Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world to implement a system of direct democracy, where citizens can petition to hold referendums on different policies.
Direct democracy is said to be the main reason for Switzerland’s political stability. Despite being a multilingual, multi-ethnic confederacy, Switzerland has enjoyed one of the longest periods of peace and stability of any country in the world. In addition, it has a stable economy (excepting the recent Swiss Franc shock after abandoning its peg to the euro), and low government debt. How much of this is thanks to Switzerland’s celebrated political model?
Click here for a full overview of arguments in favor and against EU referendums.
Do referendums undermine representative democracy? Or is Swiss democracy the way forward? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!