By Andrew Latvis
As the fog surrounding the implementation of Brexit continues to thicken, a false beacon lures the ship of British democracy towards jagged rocks. The illusory solution of the ‘People’s Vote’ is attractive to those who prefer not to voice their desire for an outright revocation of the result of the 2016 referendum. However, the campaign’s supposed goal of uniting a country divided by Brexit is incongruous with the inevitable result of their proposed imposition of a second referendum. The danger of this ‘People’s Vote’ is rooted in a fundamental disregard for the requirements of a democratic society.
The campaign’s contempt for the innate gamble of direct democracy exhibits its disdain for true democratic ideals. By nature, referenda demand a certain placement of faith in the competence of the citizenry. It must be assumed that participants will vote with an awareness of the potential ramifications of their decisions. At the core of the ‘People’s Vote’ argument, there is a distrust of the populace’s capacity to do this. The campaign asserts that the 2016 referendum is invalid due to the influence of a perceived preponderance of misinformation on the Leave vote. This argument reveals the proponents’ disinterest in the upholding of true democratic processes. They believe in democracy only insofar as it enables the enactment of their preferred policies. Their intermittent trust of the will of the people exudes the foul stench of elitism. They deem themselves to be the judges tasked with deciding when the country has been misled. Instead of allowing the consequences of direct democracy to take effect, supporters of the ‘People’s Vote’ advocate intervention to save the masses from themselves.
How many ‘People’s Votes’ are required before a referendum can be considered to be legitimate?
This flagrant objection to democratic tradition sets an alarming precedent for future plebiscites. How many ‘People’s Votes’ are required before a referendum can be considered to be legitimate? To avoid this conundrum, the grounds for the revocation of a referendum must be utterly convincing. Such grounds can be seen in the case of a 2016 marriage tax referendum in Switzerland. In April of 2019, the Swiss supreme court overturned the result of the referendum due to the “incomplete” information given to voters. The proposal that married couples and cohabiting partners would pay equal rates of tax was rejected by 50.8% of voters. In the lead-up to the referendum, voters were informed by their government that just 80,000 married couples were paying more tax than cohabiting couples. However, in a post-referendum revision of the figure, it was discovered that the true number of couples affected was 454,000. Despite the frequent application of direct democracy in Switzerland, this is the first referendum to be overturned in the country’s modern history. Although some may believe that the British referendum was also impacted by “the seriousness of the irregularities” of false information, there is a distinct difference. In the case of the Swiss referendum, misinformation came in the form of official figures circulated by the government. In any democratic vote, there is an expectation that campaigners, such as those of ‘Vote Leave’, will exaggerate facts and cherry-pick statistics. This assumption is not extended to information provided by impartial government departments. The Swiss supreme court correctly acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances of this misinformation. Meanwhile, proponents of the ‘People’s Vote’ should acknowledge the ubiquity of misinformation spread by campaign groups in all referenda.
In fact, the argument made by the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign could be turned against those whose support continued the British membership of the European Union. Heinous exaggerations were also perpetuated by pro-remain figures, for example, the European Council president, Donald Tusk’s warning of the potential destruction of all Western political civilisation in the event of Brexit. The ‘People’s Vote’ campaign dedication to truth and honesty in politics also seems to have overlooked the conduct of its own supporters. Most notably, former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell has been embraced by the movement, facilitating his feeble attempts to resurrect the putrefied corpse of Blairite ideology. The underlying dishonesty of the campaign reveals its inherent contradiction and further endangers British democratic institutions by undermining truly principled challenges to the malfeasance ‘Vote Leave’ campaign.
It may seem contradictory that a democratic vote would threaten democracy itself, however, the ‘People’s Vote’ does not involve additional democracy. It aims to nullify the established result of a democratic vote. The institution of this proposal would weaken British direct democracy through the dilution of its authority. The attempt to use democracy as a weapon against itself will ultimately lead to its degradation.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.