29 Juni 2016

Sovereign and misinformed: Brexit as an exercise in democracy?

One major point of discussion in the aftermath of the British vote to leave the European Union is whether the referendum constitutes a powerful example of what democracy is all about. While leave supporters, euro-sceptics in other EU member states, xenophobic US presidential candidates, and many political commentators agree that this is indeed the case, some voices, particularly from academia, have questioned the suitability of this tool – and of any form of direct democracy more in general – for dealing with once-in-a-lifetime-decisions like the one on continued membership of the EU. Someone has even gone as far as proposing, as a way to deal with the recent rise of certain forces across the political spectrum, to ‘weed out’ ignorant individuals from the electorate. Has someone then really waged war on ‘stupid people’? As soon as the first commentaries on Brexit poured in, these arguments have been branded as nothing but new expressions of the old-fashioned elitism by intellectuals – those ‘experts’ mocked publicly by Michael Gove – who have been unable, once more, to communicate effectively with a large part of the general public. Shouldn’t then these experts just ‘suck it up’ because the ‘people have spoken’ but not in the way they wanted to? Aren’t ‘the people’ sovereign in a democracy, and hasn’t Brexit been a prime expression of it?

Well, that depends. If you are one of many – with Schumpeter, Dahl, Sartori, Waldron, to name but a few – with a purely formal conception of democracy as merely constituting the ‘rules of the (political) game’ in which the majority decides, then indeed the vote of the 23rd of June constitutes a very successful instance of the democratic principle at work. No doubt about it. The people, however knowledgeable on the subject-matter, have voted and decided to leave the EU (although the picture is complicated by the constitutional landscape of the kingdom post-devolution vis-à-vis the Scottish and Northern Irish vote to Remain).

Things are different though if your conception of democracy is thicker than just ‘the rules of the game’. Take for instance Dworkin’s or Habermas’ theory; or those, like Bobbio and Kelsen, who see democracy as a purely formal or procedural ideal and yet have spoken of ‘pre-conditions’ that are necessary for the democratic game to get off the ground, such as the protection of some political liberties besides the obvious freedom of vote, like that of thought, of speech, of assembly, and of association; and finally those who explicitly claim how those political liberties cannot be really exercised without the positive and effective provision of some human rights: e.g. to subsistence, to healthcare, to education, and to a non-biased and complete information. The reason should be apparent: can you really be said to take part into any type of collective decision-making if you don’t know what the decision is about; or if you haven’t been provided with the necessary notions and critical-thinking tools; or if you are under emotional or physical duress because you are in poor health with no access to care or you don’t have the means to sustain yourself?

Political liberties were certainly protected during the Brexit campaign. But what about those human rights that give meaning and substance to these otherwise purely nominal liberties? Clearly no unbiased and complete information was offered to the British public, which was instead supplied with many highly misleading or even utterly false information which are now, after the vote, publicly disowned by the very people who built their campaign on them. This is arguably due, among other things, to a lack of regulation when it comes to the supply of official information in these processes (as it happens, for instance, in Ireland), to the concentration of media-ownership and its nefarious effects on news plurality, and to the level of entanglement with no filter between many media outlets and politics.

Second, polls and other analyses (here and here) indicate that people with higher levels of education have voted massively for Remain, while people with less education have done the opposite. Now, while it would be certainly wrong to demonise all leave voters for being ‘primitive, xenophobic bigots (and stupid to boot)’, it would also be dangerous to downplay the xenophobic motivation behind many Leave supporters, as shown by the immediate surge in xenophobic attacks investigated by the police. What matters is that both ignorance and xenophobia are fostered by the lack of an accessible and inclusive education for everyone: and this, together with the lack of a complete and non-biased information, raises legitimate doubts as to the awareness by many voters of the issues at stake (as the surge of Google searches post-referendum might anecdotally confirm).

Finally, one resounding argument echoed by many Leave supporters was the stress brought by economic migrants from the EU on the NHS, leading it to the brink of collapse. This might have had some considerable sway over the undecided as well. And understandably so, as the NHS crisis is very real, with far-reaching consequences especially for the less wealthy who cannot afford private healthcare. But is the NHS crisis really due EU migrants, when research shows how their fiscal contribution to the UK economy over the last 20 years far outweighs the public money they received? Aren’t instead the UK government’s austerity policies driving the NHS into the ground? This ties-in also with the connection between the always deepening wealth gap between elites and masses in many western democracies, and the rise of anti-establishment movements or leaders that are able to ‘ride’ people’s grievances towards their rulers.

Rather than just criticising the referendum as a decision-making tool because ‘the people’ don’t have the necessary expertise to take decisions of this magnitude (as recent and successful examples indicate otherwise), we should question the conditions in which many UK voters were called to express their opinion. They, like many all over the world, have seen the progressive hollowing-out of those basic rights that make voting the expression of the right to individual and collective self-rule in the first place. For there is no authentic participation to public life and public decision-making without the guarantee of basic human rights to subsistence and to healthcare; nor formation of any individual or collective genuinely informed will without the provision of non-biased and complete information and inclusive education for all. In short, a ‘democracy preserved only in form’ is actually no democracy at all: it is an empty simulacrum ready to be filled by some of the ugliest human sentiments. History has taught this lesson far too well already. And yet…

Ultimately, UK citizens who voted Leave have voiced a sentiment of betrayal and grievance that is mounting everywhere in Europe. This sentiment cannot go unheard any further. Outside the UK, austerity driven-policies by Brussels have progressively worsened the living conditions of millions of people in the Eurozone. Hence, rather than exclusively blaming the disenfranchised for casting their vote, we should rather ask ourselves to what extent our political institutional arrangements are still meaningfully democratic – before it’s too late and we witness even that remaining thin, formal democratic layer folding upon itself and unleash an old evil the European project’s pragmatic utopia appeared to have defeated.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Sandro, Paolo: Sovereign and misinformed: Brexit as an exercise in democracy?, VerfBlog, 2016/6/29, https://verfassungsblog.de/sovereign-and-misinformed-brexit-as-an-exercise-in-democracy/, DOI: 10.17176/20160629-161228.


  1. S. Wiley Do 30 Jun 2016 at 08:13 - Reply

    Paolo, thanks for this article that I consider to be much better balanced than most of the academic stuff I read here so far. Still I question whether political propaganda is something that was invented and employed exclusively by the leave camp.

    The UK is a country with one of the highest levels of education in the world.
    If they are clueless, the rest of the world must be really dumb.

    30 000 votes decided the outcome of the presidental vote in Austria. None of those who are just uncomfortable with the UK leaving the EU, blame the Austrians for being undereducated and misinformed.
    In a well functioning democracy the majority decides and the minorities are protected by their consitutional rights.

    The EU put that principle upside down: A well organised tiny minority rules and the people can „wait and see“.

    With regards to the NHS crisis: Isn’t the sentiment of the people real that mass immigration of unqualified migrants will lower their standards of living?
    Isn’t it real that the people at the lower end of the social scale face increased competition for jobs, allowances and housing?


  2. Roner Do 30 Jun 2016 at 09:13 - Reply

    I could not think of any better propaganda in favour of a Brexit than the invitation that Angela Merkel sent out 2015 to everyone who could afford a smuggler and the flood of illegal immigration to the EU that followed …

  3. Paolo Do 30 Jun 2016 at 12:40 - Reply

    Hi Sean, thanks for your points! I don’t have any problem of course with political propaganda per se, and of course you are quite right that both camps entertained it during the campaign. What I dread though is this ‚post-truth politics‘ phase in which you can put any sort of statement, no matter how far from the truth (350£/w to EU for instance), and get away with it. That claim was empirically false, as then ackwnoledged by Farage, IDS, etc., and yet an entire campaign was built (also) on it.

    Second, albeit it is true what you say re UK having one of the highest levels of education in the world, I wouldn’t necessarily see that as a counter-argument to my point. I also stress how all the available data, interestingly corroborated by personal experience, indicate that there is a direct correlation between level of education and ‚feeling European‘, for whatever reasons; as well as a direct correlation between poor education and xenophobia (and other unfortunate positions). I would also point to the geographical distribution of the vote, which has seen 7 out of 10 major cities in the UK voting to remain (massively in most cases), while Birmingham, Bradford and Sheffield have seen leave voters prevail with a very narrow margin. This is relevant as it is safe to assume that the majority of jobs that require higher degrees are concentrated in the big cities – again not enough by itself, but a corroborating factor when read together with the other evidence.

    Lastly, if you ask me whether the sentiment of the people re immigrants is real, well yes of course it is. If you ask me whether that sentiment has any real basis in economic analysis, and remember that I am not an economist myself, well I am less sure. As I said research indicates that EU migrants (even post-2004 and -2007 accessions) contribute more fiscally than money they receive from the government. In short, not only they ‚pay themselves‘ their social rights (healthcare, pensions, benefits, etc.) with their fiscal contributions, but they also ‚chip in‘ for British people. So where do their taxes go? Why aren’t they use to fund the NHS accordingly, so that it can provide the services as needed? Rather, we have seen the NHS budget progressively squeezed…

    I also remember reading a study according to which if the British pension system is to be viable up until 2050, net immigration must rise (more or less, can’t remember which one at the moment sorry). This is a common trend in many European countries (Italy being one of them), due to a variety of factors, of which I will mention two: ageing population of European member states together with low birth-rate, and also unwillingness of young generations of those member states to do some of the low-skills jobs required by the economy (eg, strawberry pickers in Kent).

    I hope these points make sense, I’ve pretty much written them on the fly. P.

  4. S. Wiley Do 30 Jun 2016 at 21:56 - Reply

    Paolo, the 350 millions are the nominal contributions of the UK to the EU. So yes, it is incorrect to claim this money is sent to the EU without deducting the money received from the EU. And yes, one has to know the difference between nominal and net contributions. It’s incorrect but at the same time easy to rebute and this was done in the media well befor the elections:

    Secondly, in a democratic referendum one citizen, whatever the level of education, age or wealth may be, has one vote. Starting a discussion about voters demographics to skew the outcome does not help.

    You stated „As I said research indicates that EU migrants (even post-2004 and -2007 accessions) contribute more fiscally than money they receive from the government.“, but the report says this is not true for non-EU immigrants. It is the overall number plus the professional and cultural suitability of the immigrants that makes immigration fail or succeed. An this observation has absolutely nothing to do with xenophobia.

    Finally, if you see the UK pension system on the brink by 2050 without immigration, let me tell you this:

    In Germany, where my wife chose me to live :-), the average age is rising steadily since 1910. Since that time the birth rates are below preservation levels.

    How come the Bismarck public pension system did not collapse decades ago? Because we have ever increasing productivity that creates wealth despite ever decreasing birth rates.

    The talk about „viable pension system“ or „demographic change“ – a change that started a century ago – is in reality a talk about the re-distribution of productivity gains away from the ordinary citizens – end of story.

  5. Paolo Do 30 Jun 2016 at 23:39 - Reply

    Hi again Sean. You write:

    ‚Secondly, in a DEMOCRATIC referendum one citizen, whatever the level of education, age or wealth may be, has one vote. Starting a discussion about voters demographics to skew the outcome does not help. ‚ (capitals mine)

    All my piece intends to do is to raise question as to true ‚democratic‘ character of this vote. It intends to offer a possible explanation (not necessarily the right one, not necessarily the only one) about the features of the vote (what you call the demographics). You are right to say that in a referendum every head counts for one, no matter what. But then, if some of those ‚heads‘ were not put in the best position to cast their vote, we shouldn’t complain if the outcome is hard to make sense of, isn’t it?

    (and the leave outcome is hard to make sense of from several objective points of view, economic in the first place, but also political, social, international, etc.)

    You say the 350 millions claim was rebuted by media. Let me ask you, how many people read the Guardian? I’d argue it does much more a title from the Sun (like this https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1234940/britain-to-be-hit-with-huge-brussels-bill-unless-the-uk-agrees-to-bid-adieu-to-eu/) with his two millions readership than countless articles, blog posts, etc. from experts and journalists. ‚Post-truth‘, right? Also, the 350 millions claim was one out of many (what about the ‚other countries set to join the EU‘ leaflet given to millions of people, which again was as a matter of fact based on an empirically false claim?) on which the Leave campaign was built. This is hard to deny.

    Re immigration, I was referring to EU migrants only, so I’m not sure how what you say should be a rebut to my argument. EU migrants of all types balance themselves out in fiscal terms in the UK (and they add something too), and no feasible argument has been brought as to why that should change in the near future. Also, I’d like to point your attention to this piece: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/24/voting-details-show-immigration-fears-were-paradoxical-but-decisive

    Lastly, I’m no expert on German demographics, but it is common knowledge that Germany sees one of the highest levels of immigration in the world. So one very important factor as to why the German pension system has not collapsed, I’d dare to say, is precisely because of one of the highest level of immigration in the world.

  6. S. Wiley Fr 1 Jul 2016 at 07:42 - Reply

    Paolo, thanks for your response.

    > All my piece intends to do is to raise question as to true ‚democratic‘ character of this vote. … But then, if some of those ‚heads‘ were not put in the best position to cast their vote, we shouldn’t complain if the outcome is hard to make sense of, isn’t it?

    If the referndum was not „democratic“ enough, what measures would have made it sufficiently democratic?

    We have a remarkable 72% voter turnout. The referendum was anounced two years back. The question was, I think, sufficiently clear. We had a government that was as a whole pro-EU.

    All the excuses that are made now with regards to the outcome are valid for any democratic vote.

    Instead of questioning the inner workings of voters heads the real and the key question is:

    Why did the EU fail the UK referendum?

    Only this question can start a problem solving process.

    Thanks for that, Sean

  7. Paolo Fr 1 Jul 2016 at 11:45 - Reply

    Sean, I’m not so sure anymore that you actually read my original comment.. I thought you said you had appreciated it precisely because I wasn’t just saying ‚the people are ignorant and took the wrong decision‘, but rather than the vote could be understood (also) as a reaction to a wider problem that see the EU project in need for a big change of direction

    (in fact, I quote Greenwald’s piece two or three times..).

    I do think that. The EU project is destined to fail if the EU leadership doesn’t realise that austerity, banks bail-outs, the lack of a real political integration are (among other things) driving people away from it.

    At the same time, I believe that these factors played less of a role in the Brexit vote (than, say, in other elections or referenda in continental Europe). For one thing, remember that the UK didn’t join the common currency – which means that austerity policies are much more an internal matter in the UK than they are in the EU (in Italy, for one, austerity was directly imposed by Bruxelles through a series of puppet governments imposed on the Italian people).

    For the last time (just because otherwise it would be clear that we are talking past each other), my aim is to question the conditions in which the referendum took place.

    Was the question clear? Yet it was. Were most people aware of what the EU is, how it works, what benefits it has brought, etc.? I’m less sure, as some elements seem to indicate (and I can tell you this also from personal experience, as I have been teaching EU law over the last couple of years in Liverpool and Manchester).

    Second, were many people (especially the older ones, who likely have less familiarity and less access to the internet) correctly informed? I highly doubt that too. Immigration became the one and first reason for many voters to back Leave, and yet these people were mislead on a number of counts ( 1) Turkey and other countries ’set to join‘ the UK; 2) you can access the single market without agreeing on full freedom of movement for eu workers, etc. etc.). This applies to many other arguments used in the debate.

    Third, many people have voted in a situation in which some of their most basic human rights (to subsistence, to healtcare) have been progressively hollowed out, and the EU was somehow blamed for it (whereas, again, these are much more of an internal problem in the uk – hence the picture is more complex in my view than ‚the EU failed the UK‘).

    Ultimately, my take-home point is that referenda are not ‚good‘ or ‚bad‘ in themselves – their ‚democratic value‘ is exclusively determined by the conditions in which they are carried out. But unlike a general election – where voters are electing representatives who will then make decisions ‚on their behalf‘ – in a referendum it is absolutely vital that those conditions (basic rights, education, information, etc.) are guaranteed to the highest level, because here the people themselves – and not their representatives – are taking the decision.

    So in some sense direct democracy is more ‚democratic‘ than representative democracy only insofar as the people are put in the best possible conditions to vote – otherwise it is an empty simulacrum with potentially dangerous consequences (as we are already experiencing in the UK)


    p.s. To be sure, my point would have been the same even if the outcome was reversed (52 remain, 48 leave), as the fact that 15 millions voted against their government’s recommendation (and against what almost every independent expert recommended ) would have been still a remarkable fact.

  8. Paolo Fr 1 Jul 2016 at 11:49 - Reply
  9. S. Wiley Di 5 Jul 2016 at 18:19 - Reply

    > Immigration became the one and first reason for many voters to back Leave

    How come? Merkel invited „without upper limit“ the supposedly poor and starving of the world. And afterwards intended with the backing of the EU commission to distribute them across the EU by quotas. It might be the exception, but this decisive momentum was not created in the UK.

    > To be sure, my point would have been the same even if the outcome was reversed (52 remain, 48 leave)

    Yes, but to be even more sure, you would not have published an article then. 🙂

    Thanks for this. Sean

  10. John C Matylonek Mi 22 Mrz 2023 at 20:04 - Reply

    First of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am strictly a citizen of the United States and the EU with some connections with family, friends and business associates in Africa. I have been deeply concerned about the dysfunctions of democracy and have thought in logical but not book-studied ways on the essentials of inclusive compromise governance – my definition of democracy.

    I believe that ability to for fair elections to self-correct any electorate mistakes, based on the evidence of policy results, is the most important aspect of democracy. This is simply an extension of the use of self-correcting evidence-based science, journalism and education in driving public policy and reporting corruption.

    The Brexit decision, as far as I can tell, even if it was swayed by propaganda and disinformation, did not dismantle the mechanisms of elections in which course corrections can be made.

    As long as four pillars remain,

    1) Free, fair elections, majority rule, minorities protected
    2) The checking and balancing of all organized selfish powers for inclusive compromise governance
    3) Equal application of fair law and equitable economic policy
    4) Use of self-correcting evidence-based science, journalism and education in driving public and reporting corruption….

    then sovereign countries may make mistakes and correct them on timelines that may not make the better informed people happy, but democracy remains.

    Here is my book review of Laboratories of Democracy: How national parties have transformed state politics. I think the concepts to apply to all countries.


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