Why referendums are bad for democracy

The EU referendum was most certainly not required: it was a political choice made by a Prime Minister pursuing party interest

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

This country has come very close to breaking apart in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. And it is even closer to coming apart now, after the EU membership referendum. This begs the question: why do we have referendums at all?

Single issue referenda like the ones we have had in the last couple of years, and like the one in 2011 on the Alternative Vote system for electing MPs, are held up as the purest examples of people power made manifest – the highest example of democratic practice we see in our complex Western societies in modern times. But are they?

Sometimes such plebiscites may be unavoidable. Sometimes, there may be no precedents for a specific political course of action, and the elected representatives of the people may be judged to not have the required authority to make the decision by themselves. The Scottish Independence referendum was perhaps one such case, after the Scottish National Party was elected with a majority at Holyrood on a platform of having such a referendum.

But the EU referendum was most certainly not required: it was a political choice made by a Prime Minister pursuing party interest, on the assumption that he would win it easily and could pacify a certain wing of his party and a certain demographic in the country. That assumption has been confounded, and the referendum has ended up being the most momentous political moment in our lifetimes.

‘Clever’ political gambit

Yet the risk of making just this kind of stupid miscalculation in some “clever” political gambit is not nearly the worst aspect of having referenda, or the most damaging to democracy. Rather, the most concerning aspect, especially when the referenda are on issues that relate to political and national identity as has been the case in the Scottish Independence and the Brexit referenda, is the polarising and dividing effect they have on society.

The EU referendum was most certainly not required: it was a political choice made by a Prime Minister pursuing party interest

Azeem Ibrahim

I have been involved in two referenda now, the Scottish and the EU ones, and both I believe have been hugely damaging to the social fabric of society. In Scotland it brought out the worst amongst some of the nationalists. Much has been made of the so-called ‘civic nationalism’ espoused by many of the leading proponent of Independence. Not much covered was the other side: the raging and raving ‘Celtic’ ethnocentrism heavily prominent in the art and music of the campaign, and the anti-English xenophobia.

I have seen nationalism all over the world. It is ugly in every form. And no matter how high-minded educated political leaders try to make it sound, their groundswell of popular backing will always find cause for bitter identity politics which can easily overflow into ethnic conflict.

There have been relatively few concerning incidents following the Scottish referendum, but the same cannot be said of what has happened since the Brexit referendum – not least because the nationalist vote has won. And with that victory, no matter the fact that the majority of Leave voters would not have been motivated by xenophobia, the significant minority of racists have felt emboldened to come out from their caves and cause an upsurge in ‘celebratory’ racist incidents and attacks against anyone remotely ‘foreign’: European nationals, non-European foreigners, and even British-born non-White people.

But the divisions run much deeper than that. The uptick in racist incidents can safely be attributed to a minority of idiots. What is much more wide-spread, and much more concerning, is the way in which the polarisation of the democratic debate between ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’, between ‘elites’ and ‘ordinary, decent people’ means that we now live in a society where one half is refusing to engage with the other. A society where neither half is willing to assume that it shares a community of interest with the other half. In other words, we find ourselves in two countries.

Will these halves come back together again? Will we ever be a country where we can have a democratic conversation with each other in good faith and with an understanding that we need to work together if we are to succeed? At the moment, there is little to be optimistic about: if the lessons of the United States are anything to go by, once one half of the country refuses to talk to the other, all we can look forward to is political dysfunction and social strife.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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