Are referendum a flawed form of democracy?

Referendum a “Device of Dictators and Demagogues”?

The will of the people?

The UK European referendum result  has huge implications for the economic, social and political landscape of the country and has shown how divided the country is towards the EU. Despite a small majority (52%) being in favour of leaving the EU most politicians claim it was a “clear result” and frequently state that it is the “will of the people” to trigger Article 50 and exit the EU.

This is 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 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 even rejected more than one attempt to introduce clauses that would have made the result binding.  An advisory referendum is designed not to be binding. It would seem inappropriate to base a major constitutional change on a simple majority without Parliament first debating it and voting on such a change. As the turnout of the referendum was 70% this means the Government is making a decision based upon only 37% of the total electorate being in favour of leaving the EU. This is not the “will of the people”, but the preference of a minority.

But are referendum really an appropriate way of making such an important decision that could have long-lasting consequences for the country’s economy and our dealings with Europe and the rest of the world?  Fore example the latest Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) estimate (November 2016) is that  around half of the UK’s budget deficit (i.e. £58.7bn)  over the next 5 years will be the result of Brexit. That’s around £226 million a week which will wipe out most of the estimated £250m net-saving of not paying into the EU (not £350m as mentioned by the leave campaign).

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 Wordl 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.

Image of Vladimir Putin

Referendum, plebiscites or polls are positioned as allowing the people to directly express their democratic will on a specific issue, but are they not a sign of a weak leader or a way for the elite to legitimise a policy they support? In the case of David Cameron there was no need to have a 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, though 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 often emotionally charged issue, to be reduced to a simplistic 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 the campaign.

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. This 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 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 are now pressing for a second independence referendum.
  • 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 because 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 referenda 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.

Finally, as the 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 Brexit. 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. The take-over of parliament by career politicians appears to have removed any chance that they might think like a statesman or women to do what is best for the country rather than their desire for power.

Related to this post is:

Reasons for blocking Article 50 – Should MPs vote to stop Article 50?

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?

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  • About the author:  Neal provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as, and  He identifies areas for improvement using a combination of approaches including web analytics, heuristic analysis, customer journey mapping, usability testing, and Voice of Customer feedback.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.

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