In the News

The Brexit referendum and voter regret

Mike McCartney

6th June 2023

A recent newspaper poll suggests a record number of Brexit voters favour rejoining the EU

According to the I newspaper (login required) 49% of all voters want to reverse Brexit - the largest number recorded in similar polls carried out by BMG for the same newspaper.

This again highlights the debate about whether the referendum is a suitable instrument for deciding issues of large political and constitutional significance in Britain.

Is the referendum, then, a bad way to run a democracy?

As a recap, here is a brief overview of the arguments for and against their usage.

Advantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • It is the most direct, purest form of democracy.
  • The fact that the people have made the decision grants it a great deal of legitimacy.
  • Referendums are useful in securing the consent of the people for important constitutional and governmental change.
  • There is a citizenship issue in that referendums give people the opportunity to participate directly in politics and so may increase their attachment to political institutions.
  • They have an educational function, raising citizens’ awareness of issues
  • It can help to entrench constitutional change in a system which has an uncodified, flexible constitution.
  • Sometimes referendums can solve a problem for government itself when there is a good deal of internal conflict.

Disadvantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • If referendums become too frequent there will be a danger of ‘voter fatigue’, resulting in low turnouts and apathy.
  • Referendums may have the effect of undermining respect and authority for elected institutions.
  • There is Rousseau’s and John Stuart Mill’s argument that referendums represent the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Minority interest would be swamped by the power of the democratic majority.
  • Many issues may be too complex for the average voter to understand. Perhaps these decisions are best left to those who have knowledge and the means to reflect of the various complexities.
  • Similarly voters may respond to emotional, rather than rational arguments.
  • There is a danger with referendums that voters would be swayed by campaigns of newspapers, notably tabloids, or by wealthy vested interests who can afford to spend large amounts of money on the campaign.
  • Similarly voters might make illogical choices in referendums, for example voting for tax cuts which might result in the collapse of public services that they want to see funded.

I think the polls showing Brexit regret and the experience of the referendum as an instrument of direct democracy within the context of the British system of representative democracy is potentially a good topic for discussion for Year 11s doing A Level taster courses post-GCSE, or, equally, a good introductory topic come September for Y12s.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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