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The danger of referendums: changing public opinion on Brexit

Mike McCartney

13th January 2024

A recent poll suggests strong voter regret on the issue of the UK's EU withdrawal: how could we have prevented this?

The arguments for and against referendums in the UK are well worn, and can be briefly summarised as follows.

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.

With regards to Brexit, there is strong evidence of Leaver's regret.

According to the Guardian:

"A clear majority of the British public now believes Brexit has been bad for the UK economy, has driven up prices in shops, and has hampered government attempts to control immigration, according to a poll by Opinium to mark the third anniversary of the UK leaving the EU single market and customs union."

These findings corroborate earlier research that I referred to in an earlier blog post.

To protect against referendums being used to effect change with regards to important constitutional issues, many suggest some wort of qualified majority should be used. Mads Qvortrup puts an excellent case forward in a recent academic publication here. It is well worth a read.

Mike McCartney

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

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