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23 Jun 2021

Constitution and governance

This Reflecting on Brexit piece is part of our #EUref5yrsOn series.

This 23 June marks five years since the Brexit referendum. The subsequent Brexit process was drawn out and fractious, marked by deep division in the country, and heated arguments about the proper roles of Parliament, the courts, the devolved administrations, and the public in the UK’s democratic system. Now, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, politics remains far from ‘normal’.

Five years on from June 2016, we should reflect on what lessons can be learnt for using referendums differently and better in the future – not least because further referendums may be on the cards.

This applies most obviously in Scotland, over possible independence, but also potentially in Northern Ireland, where the Constitution Unit has recently led a project on the conduct of any future referendum on Irish unification. Both of these issues have risen in prominence partly due to divisions over Brexit.

Drawing on our recent Northern Ireland work, as well as the important report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which sat during 2017–18, we identify five key lessons.

  1. Before embarking on a referendum, the effects of both possible outcomes should be clear

Referendums by their nature require a simple choice between (usually two) options. To enable informed choices by voters, and also to avoid arguments afterwards, the meaning of those options should be as clear as possible.

In the case of Brexit, the Leave option was far from fully specified, leading to long and difficult post-referendum wrangles about how to interpret the result.

Civil servants were famously forbidden by the Prime Minister from preparing for a Leave outcome: as the chief official at Defra (one of the departments most affected by Brexit) has explained ‘It was only on the day of the referendum that any kind of discussions had started about what might happen if the answer was a no’.

This approach should never be countenanced again. As far as possible, the full implications of change must be put before the voters. Ideally (as occurred in the referendum on the Commons voting system in 2011), the proposed change should already have been legislated for in detail, with the referendum leading directly to its implementation or repeal.

  1. If the policy outcomes themselves cannot be fully specified, the process to reach agreement after the referendum must be unambiguously set out

Sometimes the change option cannot be specified in full ahead of a vote – because crucial aspects require post-referendum negotiation, or because of a desire to include supporters of the status quo in discussions around the precise form that the proposed change might take.

In such cases it should at least be clear what the decision-making process will be if the change option wins.

After the Brexit referendum, questions about the proper role of Parliament soon became very bitter. Later there were long battles about whether there should be a further referendum to approve Theresa May’s Brexit deal. These pressures would have been greatly alleviated, and voters better informed, had an agreed process been set out in advance.

  1. Public input into complex policy questions can be achieved through less divisive mechanisms alongside or instead of referendums

Other forms of direct public participation in decision making, beyond referendums, can have important benefits. Citizens’ assemblies, where a representative group of citizens deliberate on policy options in detail, have been used in Canada and Ireland prior to referendums to inform what options are put to the vote.

Likewise, such assemblies could be used after a referendum, as an agreed part of the process, to help explore how an in-principle decision could be best put into effect.

These deliberative processes can help to develop policies that command wide support: they can bring people together, whereas referendums tend to drive them apart. At the same time, they must be used wisely, and avoid questions on which views are already deeply polarised.

Hence, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, deliberative mechanisms may be best deployed on questions ancillary to the central, binary choice. In general, where possible, inclusive discussions should begin early, before polarisation sets in.

  1. When referendums take place, voters need access to reliable, high-quality information

If a referendum engages a question of identity, voters may know where they stand from the start. But voters who are unsure what they think should be able to access the information they want from sources that they trust.

In this respect, the Brexit referendum was woeful. Both campaigns proliferated misinformation, and mechanisms to enable voters to cut through this were inadequate.

The UK Government’s current draft Online Safety Bill advocates a free market solution, arguing that accurate claims will win out in open competition. But no evidence supports that view, and the storming of the US Congress in January showed where market failure can lead.

The Constitution Unit’s report on Doing Democracy Better proposed practical steps for gradually building a ‘democratic information hub’, which could ensure that information from diverse but reliable sources was readily available.

  1. Improvements are urgently needed to the regulation of referendum (and election) campaigning

The UK’s campaign rules are largely unchanged since 2000, and are hopelessly out of date in the digital age. Spending by campaign organisations is opaque. The rules on cooperation between campaigners are muddled and hard to police. Messages can be targeted at particular groups with no external transparency. Follow-up investigations are slow.

Some positive steps are now being taken. Big tech companies have established online ad libraries that provide some – though still limited – transparency. The Queen’s Speech announced an Electoral Integrity Bill, which will require digital ads to carry information on their promoters, as printed ads long have.

But these are baby steps, while the Government devotes more energy to proposals of highly dubious merit – notably requiring voters to show ID at polling stations. A serious overhaul of the regulatory system is needed.

Five years on from 23 June 2016, Brexit has been delivered, but few would deny that the process has been painful and difficult. To avoid repetition of such problems, we should heed these key lessons about doing future referendums differently and better.

By Professor Meg Russell, Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe and Director of the Constitution Unitat University College London and Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.


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