Generation Brexit

Referenda: Friend or Foe?

Representative democracy has become the predominant system of governance across Europe and much of the world. While it has its roots in Athenian democracy from the 5th century BC, whereby participating citizens voted directly on legislation and bills, in a system of representative democracy the citizenry elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Referenda is an expression of direct democracy which is used by governments to empower its population to actively participate in the decision-making process.

Currently, most of the ‘Western World’ is struggling with a democratic deficit, which some maintain can be reduced if referenda are increasingly used; I, however, do not. As illustrated by James Madison, direct democracy enables the ‘tyranny of the majority’, to the disadvantage of the opinions of minorities. Yet, most dangerously, referenda place too much power in the hands of an uninformed citizenry who make impulsive decisions to their detriment.

For centuries they have been used as a way of disguising oppressive policies, most notably by Mussolini in 1934 and Hitler in 1936. While they may be extreme exceptions, governments do often misuse them to overcome internal party struggles, as was the case with the 2016 EU and 1979 Scottish referenda. These decisions are generally taken with little regard as to the public appetite, yet instead focus on political agenda, illustrated by the AV and Welsh Assembly referenda. Moreover, in circumstances where voter turnout is so low, it arguably delegitimises the decision reached and the process itself, as evinced by a 35.2% voter turnout in the Welsh Assembly referendum.

Moreover, referenda inherently oversimplify the complexities of the questions they ask. Due to this oversimplification, the citizenry are swayed by emotions as opposed to technical issues that may arise. A key issue I have with the nature of the EU referendum is the treatment of the institution in the media and by our politicians for many years preceding the vote, as well as during the campaign. After openly and repeatedly criticising the EU, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron called the EU referendum for the 23rd of June 2016, in which he called upon the citizenry to vote in favour of remaining in the EU. This in consistency not only reflected poorly upon him but also upon his overall aim. Cameron’s miscalculation in calling the referendum led to successful vote to leave, with 51.9%.

The power of the media corporations, such as News Corporation International, in influencing public opinion and the power of strong personalities, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, further pressures an already struggling citizenry with their decision. The scaremongering and fake news employed throughout the campaign, as evinced by UKIP’s controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster and the bus advertisement stating that ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.’


Overall, I believe that there must be adequate deliberation over key issues and that this can only be achieved by elected representatives who have the ability to access a wide array of information and are able to, by and large, able to view an issue in the long-term as opposed to solely short-term gains. 

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