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Has Brexit Ruined Democracy?

Making sense of the fact that every possible side of the Brexit debate is claiming to speak for 'democracy'.
Pro-Brexit protesters
Photo by Jake Lewis

As Britain walks up to the toilet bowl and plonk ourselves down, ready to empty our bowels with our trousers and pants still on, at least we're safe in the knowledge that what we're about to do is democratic. The country has voted to shit itself – right?

Certainly this is what Theresa May seems to think. Failing to leave the European Union would be “a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy,” May wrote in the Sunday Express, shortly before her deal was rejected by parliament last month. This sentiment was been echoed by Michael Gove, as well as that noted champion of democracy, Vladimir Putin. "She must enact the will of the people, expressed during the referendum," he said in December. "Or otherwise it is not a referendum at all: doing it over and over again if someone did not like it [the result]. Is it a democracy?"


Similarly, Labour frontbencher Jon Trickett was reluctant to back the Cooper amendment, which would have obliged May to seek an extension to Article 50 rather than drop out without a deal, on the grounds that “it may look to people like we're trying to remove the earlier decision, which was to Brexit”. A number of Labour backbenchers later defied the whip to vote against the amendment for precisely this reason.

Here, democracy is a matter of respecting the result. In June 2016, the People Of Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum – and that decision must be carried out, regardless of the consequences. “It is terrible but I still want it,” as The Guardian recently quoted one Leave voter from Crewe as claiming.

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as all that. Yes, we voted to Leave. But what exactly does this mean? The 2016 vote was to leave the European Union – but does that also mean leaving the single market, leaving the customs union? Leave campaign high-up Dan Hannan, for instance, assured us during the referendum that it didn't. But ever since the result, many Brexiteers have often assumed that the public voted for something close to the hardest of Hard Brexits: controls on immigration and “freedom to negotiate our own trade deals”.

Then there’s the alternative view: namely that it would be really democratic to have a second referendum. That’s not looking likely, but the idea does have a certain spirit of democracy on its side: the 2016 vote was genuinely ambiguous about what Brexit entailed, and a fresh vote could help clarify its terms.


Truly, invoking democracy can be used to make almost any point about Brexit.

A recent piece in Jacobin, for instance, argues from an ostensibly left-wing perspective that the only truly democratic thing to do would be to leave. Britain needs to seize this historic opportunity to cast itself free from the EU – one of the “chief enemies of democratic politics, and therefore the mass of people, in the world today,” it says.

Politics professor Allison Drew has even argued that the result did not really provide a mandate to Leave, since the margin of victory was not significant enough to justify major constitutional change (a simple majority is often not enough in referendums like this: the result of the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, for example, was never implemented because turnout was deemed too low). Moreover the Leave campaign, as has been repeatedly pointed out since the result, was not exactly run in a way that was sporting and above-board.

Isn’t the UK is supposed to be a representative democracy? So can’t we just let parliament sort it out? Seemingly not. Parliament doesn't seem to be able to vote on anything meaningful at all. It can’t even function effectively enough to collapse and stage another general election to break the deadlock – the democratic solution favoured, for obvious reasons, by the Labour leadership.

There are also serious concerns about who exactly parliament is representing. As Adam Ramsay points out, the Brexit decision largely falls to England and not the other nations of the United Kingdom, whose interests are typically neglected.


Speaking of which, there’s a democratic argument for the infamous “backstop”. As things stand, leaving the customs union would mean establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which would violate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement was also passed, in 1998, following not one but two referendums (in Northern Ireland and the Republic, respectively). Are we only supposed to respect the result of the 2016 vote, then, and not those ones?

Maybe more democracy is the answer. A number of figures have suggested that the right solution to Brexit would be to get the public directly involved. Yanis Varoufakis has proposed that Brexit be worked out through a “People's Debate” taking place in “regional assemblies, leading to a national convention,” formulating a “menu” of Brexit options before a second referendum in 2022. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has echoed this idea.

This is what’s often called deliberative democracy, where decisions must be preceded by genuine, informed consideration. That’s not what happened before the 2016 referendum – and we haven’t seen much of it since. This leads us to the heart of the problem: when it comes to Brexit, no-one knows what's going on. The whole process of actually leaving is almost impossible to follow. The people responsible for it show little sign of understanding it, and neither do the media. Brexit is Big News, so every little twist and turn is reported in interminable live blogs, but if you turn away, even for a second, you might never be able to catch up. Very few of the parties contesting Brexit seem to know what they want to get out of it. No Deal has become the default because the tiny Tory fringe who want it are united, while the rest of parliament can’t decide on an alternative.

Brexit was never about democracy in the first place. It was devised by David Cameron as a way to solve an internecine conflict within the Conservative party, which ended up getting out of hand. The real question is whether the conditions for a democratic way forward actually exist.