The 2016 UK referendum: power to the people?

Britain - EU in or out?
Britain and the EU – In or out?

The UK referendum requires voters to speculate on the benefits of EU membership and decide whether to remain or leave. Campaigns have been characterised by an absence of facts and by populist rhetoric. The absence of informed debate has done democracy a disservice. by ALW

On 23 June, UK voters will decide in a pre-legislative referendum whether to remain in the EU or leave. The referendum was called by Prime Minister Cameron to pacify anti-EU backbenchers in his Conservative party and halt an erosion of the Conservative vote by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP’s relentless campaigning against a perceived loss of UK sovereignty to Brussels has been taken up by the “Leave” campaign, while the government endorses the “Remain” campaign. In February, Cameron secured concessions and guarantees from the EU Council of Ministers on, inter alia, Britain’s right to opt out of closer EU integration and the status of sterling, concessions used by the government to support its “Remain” stance.

This is not the first referendum on Britain’s membership of a European institution. In 1975 the Labour government secured voters’ post-legislative endorsement of British membership, negotiated in 1973, of the EEC. A second, UK-wide, post-legislative referendum in 2011 followed enactment of a Bill on the voting system. One political scientist described the campaigning as “bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate”.

The referendum: an unconstitutional novelty in UK politics?

It is far from clear that referenda are valid or useful additions to the UK parliamentary system. Some constitutional lawyers will insist that the results of a referendum, pre- or post-legislative, are not legally binding on a current or future sovereign parliament and can therefore be ignored. However, laws governing relations between the EU and member states, such as the 2011 European Union Act (EUA), are complex. In a summary of the Act, the UK Parliament website claims that the EUA imposes parliamentary and referendum conditions on EU Treaty amendments and decisions: “a clause that affirms that EU law takes effect in the UK only because Parliament wills that it should. … parliament is sovereign”. But this same Act is criticised by The London School of Economics and Political Science as legally inconsistent and constitutionally pointless. Other commentators believe that the 2011 Act “saw populism inadvertently written into English law by introducing the novel device of a ‘referendum lock’”, whereby major changes involving national sovereignty require the approval of British citizens. And that “thanks to the Act, the people, not Parliament, were now the final guarantor of British sovereignty”.

Voters need facts on which to base a decision

Cameron and Schulz at the european parliament
Cameron and Schulz at the European Parliament 2016

There may be equivocation among constitutional experts over the laws governing Britain’s relations with the EU, but there should in theory be no uncertainty among voters on the key issues of the 2016 referendum. Broadly, the opposing sides have presented their cases as follows: leading Remain campaigners, including the PM himself, have characterised leaving the EU as “a leap in the dark” which would threaten Britain’s exports, growth, living standards, security and role on the world stage; in contrast, the Leave campaign believe that EU membership is costly, reduces control over migration, imposes restrictions and “red tape” on businesses, threatens UK legal independence and aims at ever-closer integration into a “United States of Europe”. These positions have been promoted through leaflets, the media, speeches and debates.

One of the first leaflets to appear was the government’s own, on behalf of Remain. The rival campaign responded with 5 positive reasons to Vote Leave and take back control, addressing the topics of the cost of the EU, immigration, trade freedoms, EU laws, and the need for the UK to be able to act without EU interference in these areas. More subtly partisan is a leaflet entitled The UK and the European Union: The Facts. Tiny print on the back page of this leaflet notes that it was published on behalf of Vote Leave Ltd. Some websites, such as „In Facts“ and „Get Britain Out„, proclaim their bias. Meanwhile, media coverage in the press, TV and radio has been unrelenting. But despite this apparent abundance of facts and factual sources, a frequently reported request from the public, especially from undecided voters, has been for facts on which to base a decision.

… but remain uninformed or even misled

In the absence of facts, the campaign has featured misinformation. The most prominent Vote Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson, has a well-documented propensity to be economical with the truth. He tours the UK in a “battle-bus” which parades in large letters on its side the myth that the UK pays £350m per week to Brussels. This estimate is based on an annual figure of £18b, which is not paid to Brussels. Because of the annual British rebate of £5m from the EU, the approximately £4b paid to subsidise UK farming, and payments to poorer UK regions, private sector companies and university research funds, the weekly figure is nearer £136m. Meanwhile, Remain continues to use statistics from the early 2000s which suggest that around 3 million jobs are linked to trade with the EU. Whether the current figure is now greater or less depends on how it is estimated, but it is not dependent on membership of the EU.


„Vote Leave“ campaigner Boris Johnson
„Vote Leave“ campaigner Boris Johnson

Personalities and slogans have dominated an often bitter and fractious debate. Vote Leave have criticised Remain for inciting fear of the consequences of exiting the EU. At the same time, however, they recognise that the strength of Remain is the economic case for membership which it and its domestic, international institutional, and business allies have built. In response, anti-EU campaigners have pursued their own strategy of scaremongering. UKIP’s Nigel Farage, an MEP whose political persona is so toxic that Leave did not invite him to join them, told the BBC that anger over EU migration due to lost control of borders could lead to violence on the streets of Britain, while Boris Johnson compared the EU’s European unification aims to those of Hitler. Nor is the Prime Minister averse to injecting melodrama into the debate: at a recent World Economic Forum in London he argued that a British EU exit would be in the interests of both ISIS and President Putin.

There are echoes here of the “bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate” of the 2011 referendum and of the populism which some have claimed it introduced into UK politics. The referendum campaign has gifted opportunists the chance to pursue private and political aims in a way that no general or local election ever would. Why?

Democracy and the referendum

First, in a general or local election, voters are asked to express an opinion and pass judgment on a politician’s or governing party’s record in office, or on a manifesto or other statement of political intent. In this referendum, however, voters are being asked to predict, speculate on, guess at the benefits of EU membership. Of course, the EU has a track record of legislation, but this hardly equates to the record of a government in office pursuing promises presented in a manifesto. Instead, voters will choose on the basis of belief, instinct, even prejudice, but not on knowledge. No wonder many are undecided and continue to demand “the facts”.

Second, in the referendum campaign, populism has been rife. The absence of a factual basis for decision-taking opens the way for demagoguery and provocation. The usual scapegoats have been placed front-stage by Leave campaigners: migrants who threaten UK workers’ jobs and put pressure on schools and the National Health Service (NHS); faceless Brussels bureaucrats who impose ridiculous laws on UK businesses and consumers; the European Court of Justice, which can overrule UK laws; insecure borders, which allow terrorists easy access. By comparison, Remain campaigning has been toned down; indeed, at times the Remain camp has appeared less than enthusiastic in the promotion of its cause, the result perhaps of an element of Euroscepticism in its ranks. It has failed to present a convincingly positive and hopeful message on EU membership and a UK presence in the European forum.

It is arguable that democracy has not been served by the conduct of this referendum, since an informed decision on the part of voters has been rendered almost impossible by an absence of verifiable facts, the manipulative behaviour of campaigners pursuing their own personal and political agendas, and the toxic nature of populist sloganeering and scaremongering. Referenda are latecomers to the usual UK parliamentary process of deliberative debate and decision-taking in the Lower House, followed by second chamber review. If they are to be “locked” into UK and EU voting procedures, here is evidence that they must at least be post-legislative, with the arguments and facts presented by all sides having been subjected to thorough scrutiny and debate in parliament and in the country. The EU must take note of the British experience.

Bild 1: Britain – EU in or out. Fotograf: Jeff Djevdet (Homepage: Lizenz: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
Bild 2: Cameron and Schulz at the European Parliament. © European Union 2016 – European Parliament. Lizenz: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Bild 3: Boris Johnson in Croydon 2012. Fotograf: Andrew Parsons (i-Images). Lizenz: Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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