Lessons from Brexit on why referendums and democracy don’t mix

By Janice Stein - Published on June 24, 2016
British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his resignation in front of 10 Downing in London, June 24
David Cameron announces his resignation on June 24, the day after the U.K. voted to leave the EU. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/STRPA)



British voters stunned their friends across the Channel by voting to leave the European Union. Voters did not behave as they were expected to.  Referendums, the “truest” exercise in democratic practice because every vote is counted equally and every vote counts, usually favour the status quo. In Canada, referendums that have proposed changes in Quebec’s status and in electoral systems have failed. Voters are risk-averse, especially when they’re reasonably comfortable. In the European Union, some members have had to schedule a second referendum in order to overcome voters’ aversion to changing the status quo. All the experts thought the same pattern would prevail in Britain.

The “Remain” campaign pulled out the heavy hitters – governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, U.S. President Barack Obama, and British Prime Minister David Cameron – who all warned of dire economic consequences should Britons be foolish enough to vote to leave, and assumed that all would unfold as it should. The experts, playing on voters’ innate fear of change, would win the day. But voters in England defied expectations. Swept up in a wave of populist anger against elites, laced with a heavy dose of xenophobia and seasoned with a dash of nostalgia, they voted to break with Europe and go it alone.

It is tempting to think that Europeans are more xenophobic than North Americans, that they are less welcoming to immigrants than we are, that their cultures are less open and flexible. There is truth to these arguments, but we need to be careful. In the United States and in Canada, we have communities that are devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the failure to create new opportunities. In Toronto, a wave of populist anger against “high-spending” city elites elected Rob Ford as mayor.  City leaders quietly said: “This is not who we are,” but it was who we were and we ignore those who elected Ford as mayor at our peril. 

In Alberta, the Wildrose party rose in anger and threatened a Conservative establishment. In the United States, Donald Trump has astonished experts with the success of a populist, angry, xenophobic campaign to capture the Republican nomination. It is no surprise that Trump welcomed the result of the referendum in Britain. I suspect that he imagines that Boris Johnson, a pro-Leave politician who is a top contender to be the next British prime minister, will make England “great again” as tariff walls go up and financial services jobs leave London for other capitals in Europe.  Today’s brand of populism, an artifact of a post-industrial economy, changing social norms, and open immigration, runs just beneath the surface in our rural areas and in the outer rings of our large cities.  

How well do referendums serve democracy? Not well, whether they fail or pass. Not well, because leaders always have to simplify complex decisions into a “yes” or “no” question. Not well, because referendums often give prominence to issues that are not at the top of voters’ priorities, as this one did. Not well, because representatives have the chance through their party leaders to craft compromises. Voters do not: it’s up or down. Not well, because leaders in a referendum campaign have every incentive to oversimplify and over-dramatize, playing on people’s fears to get out the vote. Not well, because referendums inflame passions and leave in their wake divided countries and divided families.

It is for all these reasons that we elect representatives who form governments. When the system is working well, parties talk across the aisle and find creative compromises that leave no one fully satisfied but no one fully dissatisfied. “Big tent” political parties build bridges across differences and meet some of the needs of most people most of the time.

Pure democracy is highly overrated. It is no accident that systems of pure proportional representation generally produce dysfunctional, sclerotic governments that fit badly with our needs. Winston Churchill put it as only he could: “Democracy is the worst of all systems, except for its alternatives.” In the wake of the vote in his beloved Britain, that wise man might now say: “Any alternative to pure democracy is better.”

Janice Stein is TVO’s foreign affairs analyst and professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Watch The Agenda with Steve Paikin Friday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. for more analysis of the Brexit referendum.