Referendum a “Device of Dictators and Demagogues”?

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Is the EU referendum the will of the people?

The EU referendum result has huge implications for the UK and yet referendum have a very chequered history as a democratic device. Despite a slim majority (52%) being in favour of leaving the EU most politicians claim it was a “clear result” and frequently state that it was the “will of the people” to trigger Article 50 and exit the EU.

This appears inconsistent with the Government’s own position stated in 2010 that referendum “cannot be legally binding” due to the sovereignty of Parliament. The Government had the opportunity to make the EU referendum binding by requiring a super majority (2:1 in favour and a 70% turnout). But instead asked Parliament for an advisory referendum.

The Government also rejected more than one attempt to introduce clauses that would have made the EU referendum result binding. An advisory referendum is designed not to be binding. This begs the question of whether it is appropriate to base a major constitutional change on a simple majority. As the turnout of the referendum was 70%. This means the UK is making a decision based upon only 37% of the total electorate being in favour of leaving the EU.

But are referendum “a device of dictators and demagogues” and inappropriate for making such an important decision that will have long-lasting consequences for the UK’s economy and our dealings with Europe and the rest of the world? According to a study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research the Brexit deal agreed with the EU will make the UK £100bn worse off a year compared to if we had remained in the EU. The analysis estimates the UK’s GDP will be 3.9% lower by 2030 because of Brexit.

The history of referendum!

In March 1975 Margaret Thatcher described referendum as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. Thatcher was quoting Clement Attlee who noticed that Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon III used referendum to legitimise decisions they had made. If we just look at referendum before World War II we can see how Mussolini and Hitler used them to their advantage.

  • March 1929 – Italy approves single-party list for Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in referendum.
  • July 1933 – Hitler grants himself the power to hold referendums.
  • November 1933 – Germans vote to leave the League of Nations in referendum.
  • March 1934 – Italians confirm approval of single-party list for Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in referendum.
  • August 1934 – Germans approve combining posts of Chancellor & President in referendum.
  • March 1936 – Germany approve single-party rule & occupation of Rhineland in referendum.
  • April 1938 – Germans approve single list of Nazi candidates for Reichstag & Anschluss with Austria in referendum.

More recently

In 2014 Russia used a referendum to legitimise the annexation of Crimea. The question the referendum asked the people of Crimea was if they wanted to join Russia as a federal subject. Or to restore the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine. As the 1992 constitution provided for increased control to the Crimean parliament, including full sovereign powers to agree relations with other states. Both choices available in the referendum would probably have resulted in separation from Ukraine. The status quo was not an option on the ballot paper.

Referendum, plebiscites or polls are positioned as allowing the people to directly express their democratic will on a specific issue. Are they not a sign of a weak leader or for the elite to legitimise a policy they support? In the case of David Cameron there was no need to have the EU referendum, he only decided to hold one to resolve an internal party dispute. It wasn’t for the national interest. It’s quite remarkable that Cameron wasn’t taken to task over this blunder in the House of Commons. This might partly be due to the implosion of the Labour opposition.

So why are referendum flawed?

Single question!

The most obvious one is that they require a complex, and emotionally charged issue, to be reduced to a yes/no question. When considering a relationship the UK has been in for over 40 years a simple yes/no or “remain/leave” question raises many complex and inter-connected questions that even professional politicians could not fully answer during or after the campaign. The EU referendum required a largely uninformed electorate to make a choice between the status quo and an extremely unpredictable outcome.

Statistics and damn lies!

There is a danger that the electorate can be mislaid by untruths and promises that are not deliverable. Certainly many newspaper stories have been written criticising the EU over the years. Boris Johnson confessed to a fellow journalist that when he was the EU correspondent at The Telegraph he made up many of his articles. Probably the most well known myth Boris Johnson created was that the EU tried to ban straight and bendy bananas. These fictional stories had an explosive affect on the Tory party, but also on the type of stories other newspapers wanted to publish about the EU.

The leave campaign leaders quickly distanced themselves from the main promises they made during the lead up to the vote because they were either inaccurate or down right lies. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Boris Johnson decided not to stand for election as party leader or that the Leave campaign didn’t have a plan for how the UK would leave the EU.

Knowledge of issues!

Ignoring the half-truths circulated about the EU the choice for the electorate in the EU referendum was still daunting. The complexity of the decision meant that most people were ill-equipped to understand the issues or the potential implications of the choice they had to make. Jason Brennan, an expert and author of the ethics of voting at Georgetown University pointed out:

“To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, one would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has even a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.”

Source: The American founding fathers had it right:

Instead most people probably used their gut instinct and responded to more emotional and social motivations than rational deliberation. People are also heavily influenced by how they think other people in their social network will vote.

Referenda are also a concern because:

  • They allow our elected representatives to avoid any responsibility for the consequences of a decision. Just look at how quickly David Cameron resigned and left politics.
  • The wording of the referendum ballot paper can potentially influence how people vote. In this instance “Leave” was naturally associated with change and risk taking. Prospect theory tells us that when people are faced only with options that result in a loss (e.g. loss of sovereignty/control or loss of EU membership) they have a tendency to choose the risky option (i.e. Leave). “Leave” also communicated action, whilst “Remain” suggests inaction.
  • They can undermine the constitutional protection of minorities. In the case of the UK people in Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted in favour of remaining in the EU. As a result the Scots now have good cause to feel they are being forced to leave the EU due to an undemocratic process. Not surprisingly the SNP initially pushed for a second independence referendum. However, more worryingly the Republic of Ireland has forced the UK government to agree that any final deal with the EU must avoid any hard border with Northern Ireland. This could undermine support for the UK union because many remain supporters in Northern Ireland may think that the Republic is more likely to support their interests and views toward the EU.

More Reasons Why:

  • People may use the referendum as a protest vote against the policies of the party in power. Voters also mix up domestic politics with those of the EU. There is certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest that some people did use the EU referendum as a protest vote against the elite. They feel they have not benefited from globalisation or don’t feel they are listened to by politicians. Indeed, since 2010 the Government has systematically reduced funding for deprived areas of the UK. The very same areas that were most likely to have voted Leave.
  • Due to the very nature of referendum, such as how the question is framed. The complexity of the decision and the coverage of the issue in the mass media, the result of referendum is very difficult to predict. This means that David Cameron essentially played Russian roulette with the electorate which by any standing was a massive blunder. It is widely accepted that Cameron did not expect to lose the EU referendum and neither did the Leave campaign expect to win.


As the late ex-MP Tam Dalyell said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, if the majority of MPs want to remain in the EU they should have “the balls to say Parliament is sovereign” and to overrule the referendum result. If they don’t it is no more than “cowardice” and using the referendum to “save politicians backsides”. Isn’t it time for politicians to stand up for what they believe in and not let a flawed form of democracy determine our destiny?

Unfortunately the political elite appear intent on following each other out of the EU like lemmings over a cliff. What we need now is politicians to do what is best for the country. Follow their principles rather than their desire for power.

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Related to this post is:

Myths about the leaving the EU – 10 myths about leaving the EU

Reasons to stop Brexit – Over 30 reasons why MPs should stop Brexit

Why people voted for Brexit – The psychology of Brexit – why emotions won over logic!

How appropriate are opinion polls before elections – Do opinion polls influence voters?

What marketing can learn from Brexit – 7 Marketing lessons from the Brexit campaigns.

How do people make most decisions – Why do people prefer to follow gut instinct to research?