The Evaluation of the Criticisms and the Referendums in the United Kingdom

Evaluate the criticisms that have been leveled against the use of referendums in the UKleveled

A referendum is a vote, which may be local, regional, or national in its scale in which qualified voters are asked a question over a proposal made by the government that would affect how the people are governed. The answer to the question is usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It is important to note that national referendums are not legally binding on Parliament or government, but in practice, it would be unthinkable for the result of the vote to be ignored.

Referendums have been a subject of controversy in recent years, coming to a head in 2016 after the national referendum on UK membership of the European Union. After a vote on Scottish independence in 2014 in which nearly 85% of the Scottish population partook, the use of referendums to settle major constitutional issues seemed like something positive, but last year’s national vote threw this debate into question. In light of this, it is relevant to consider in more detail some of the criticisms that have been made against their use in the UK and indeed how valid these arguments are.

One of the most significant criticisms made against referendums is over the complexity of the issues that they try to resolve. Specifically, the average voter may not know enough about the nuances of leaving the European Union or adopting a new electoral system and so would not be able to make an informed decision based on accurate, non-biased information.

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UK membership of the EU, for example, is steeped in over 40 years of legislation, directives, and inter-woven law. An average individual may be able to conduct peripheral research on the advantages and disadvantages of being part of the EU but the issue is arguably far too complicated and important to be decided on by the regular electorate. The UK employs the system of representative democracy for good reason; educated and informed representatives have made a career of deciding upon the best political decisions for the country. Representation is an integral feature of the British political system and the excessive overuse of referenda to settle political issues could contribute to undermining the authority of this system. Remaining with the key EU referendum of 2016, much of the campaign was

conducted in a very reductive way, and “project fear” was a key phrase used to describe how campaigners on both sides of the debate played on people’s rational concerns about the current high rate of immigration to the UK from other EU countries, generally economic immigration from Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. Leave campaigners like Nigel Farage (then leader of UKIP) and Conservative Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson focused on the idea that mass immigration from the EU (net EU migration stood at 189,000 in 2015, the year before the referendum) was having a significant impact on local communities, reducing their sense of social unity and putting a strain on public services.

The Leave campaign conveniently forgot to mention the statistic that EU migrants contribute more to the economy, net, than they take from it, and indeed it could be suggested that many migrants are willing to do difficult, manual jobs that many British citizens would not wish to do, for a lot less money. At the same time, the Remain campaign focused on the importance of EU membership for political and economic security, predicting a rise in terrorist activity and an inevitable economic crash should the UK revoke membership. We have yet to see a significant economic downturn in wake of the result of the vote and course it would be unthinkable that Britain would stop trading intelligence with European countries simply because we had decided to leave the EU. Fundamentally, both sides of the campaign were run from irrational, emotional standpoints and such a major constitutional issue surely warrants more respect and neutrality, regardless of which side of the debate you are on. EU membership is something that defies party politics and indeed the political spectrum altogether, and perhaps if the Electoral Commission (the independent body charged with regulating national votes in the UK) had been allowed to produce free, independent arguments on either side of the debate, voters would have been able to make informed decisions on which way to vote. Crucially about this criticism of the use of referendums, there is most definitely an argument that the complexity of some of the issues decided on by referenda means that an average member of the electorate is not best placed to understand the issue in hand, and therefore that MPs and parliamentary democracy should be allowed to play their legislative roles. However, if the UK is the progressive, liberal country that we profess to be, perhaps there is an argument that some important issues (electoral reform, EU membership) transcend the filter of representative democracy and that the pure, direct will of the people should decide the direction on issues like these.

Another notable criticism of the use of referendums in the UK is that they can come to represent the ‘tyranny of the majority. This specific term was believed to have been coined by US Founding Father John Adams in 1788, further popularised by political theorists such as Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill in the latter parts of the 19th century and into the 19th century. It refers to an inherent weakness of direct democracy, where the electoral majority (however marginal) can place its interests above and beyond those of the minority faction. In other words, it means that the majority who win the vote can use their victory to accept a change that is against their interests. Once again, the most appropriate case study to use in illustrating this point is the EU referendum of 2016. The result of this referendum of course was in favor of leaving the EU, with 52% of voters backing Leave and 48% voting to Remain. If we break down the result by looking at the vote in the constituent countries of the UK, this ‘tyranny of the majority does become quite apparent. England and Wales both leaned towards Leave, with both countries voting 53% in ffavor of Scotland and Northern Ireland however, both voted to remain in the EU (62% in Scotland and 56% in Northern Ireland). The UK’s capital city, London, also backed Remain (60%). Overall, however, the result in England and Wales meant that Leave won the nationwide referendum. The first thing to mention when looking at these figures is that two of the four constituent countries of the UK did not back the winning side and so their wishes are effectively ignored in the overall outcome.

Secondly, we must remember that the result only favored Leave very marginally, by a few percentages so it cannot even be argued that an overwhelming majority voted for the constitutional change, giving the government an iron-caste mandate that it could use to dispel any criticism. Furthermore, something even more striking arises when we look at turnout in the referendum. Out of the entire voting age population of the UK, a mere 34% voted Leave, with the remaining 66% of the electorate either backing Remain or abstaining. From this statistic, we might form an argument that even fewer people are actually in favor of leaving the EU than we might expect, and surely if barely more than a third of the electorate back such a significant constitutional change, it cannot be implemented with the greatest legitimacy. A year and a half from the referendum and negotiations with the EU (led by Theresa May’s ever-weakeningConservative government) are finally taking shape. With such a marginal result, we might suggest that any government in charge of acting upon this mandate would want to take a measured approach, reflecting the entire electorate, including the two constituent countries which backed Remain, rather than focusing entirely on the interests of the narrow majority. Unfortunately, this was not the Prime Minister’s decision. Currently, British negotiators led by the government are pursuing a “hard” Brexit, to evoke membership of important trade bodies, namely the single European market and Customs Union. May’s Brexit strategy also intends to end the free movement of labor and enact a much stricter immigration policy for the UK. All of these things face opposition from ardent Remainers, yet Mrs . May seems hell-bent on following the wishes of a marginal, tyrannical majority who she feels has given her a mandate for such policies and we might question whether we can refer to Leave voters as a majority at all (34% of the electorate).

All of this of course illustrates the disaster of using referenda to settle major constitutional issues of such paramount importance. Although Leave won this referendum in a literal sense, there was no thumping mandate for the kind of Brexit that we now see beginning to shape in negotiations with Brussels. To come back to the ‘tyranny of the majority as a criticism of the use of referendums, we could indeed say that those who actively chose to vote, overall, backed Leave in this referendum and that if we value democracy in its very basic essence we must respect this outcome. Despite this, the marginality of the so-called ‘majority’ in this case is something that must be considered. This referendum clearly shows how easy it is for the winning side to claim a mandate and ignore the wishes of two of the UK’s constituent countries, not to mention its capital city and its young people, simply because the opposing side tipped the scales by a questionable fraction. I would argue that this particular criticism of referendums is wholly valid, and clearly outlines how direct democracy can have damaging consequences for the significant minority who do not back the winning side.

After analyzing two major criticisms of the use of referendums in the UK, a case can be formed about their validity, going some way to settling the debate over using referenda to settle political conflict. Although embodying the purest form of direct democracy, we can most definitely suggest that the vast majority of the electorate is not well-equipped enough to understand the complexities of issues they are faced with on the ballot paper. Even the most highly trained lawyers or educated politicians have trouble accounting for every opposing argument on issues like electoral reform, devolution, or most significantly EU membership, and so it is somewhat ignorant to cast these decisions back to the average population, rather than upholding the UK’s system of representative democracy which has served us well throughout our history. Also, the ‘tyranny of the majority has come to haunt the aftermath of most of the referendums in recent British history. The Scottish nationalists still seek another vote on independence despite having one merely three years ago, electoral reform remains the aim of supporters of PR and most prevalently, “remoaners” still oppose the dangerously narrow and dismissive approach of the government after last year’s EU referendum. Centrally, referendums present a binary choice to innately non-binary issues. The debates surrounding the EU, electoral reform, and Scottish independence, to name but a few issues put to voters in recent years, are filled with subtleties and details that referendums reduce to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Referendums are a catastrophic manifestation of modern politics; society has developed in so many ways since the foundations of direct democracy in ancient Athens and thus we must respect the workings of the parliamentary democracy in which we live today, put our emotions to one side, and just let politicians do their jobs.

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The Evaluation of the Criticisms and the Referendums in the United Kingdom. (2022, Aug 06). Retrieved from

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