Brexit—Direct Democracy in Action

Brexit—Direct Democracy in Action

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In addition to all the obvious responses to the surprising vote by the citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, there were also two interesting observations which reflect curiously on the differences between democracies on both sides of the pond. They relate not to the substance of the issue decided by the voters but the actual process itself.

The voters in Britain were asked to vote directly on a matter of policy. This was not to be decided by their elected representatives in the Parliament, but by the people themselves. A public referendum was called on whether the U.K. should leave or stay in the E.U.  In a direct democratic vote of the people the British voted to leave.

This phenomenon which exists in the States as well, is part of what is known as the right to petition the Government; initiative, referendum, and recall. At the national level in the United States, these options almost never are used. The most likely way it might be used would be for citizens to petition for an initiative to amend the Constitution. While at the State level referenda, recall, and initiative are more prevalent; although there too not that common. While referenda are more prevalent in the West, as recently as 2012 the citizens of Wisconsin failed in a recall election of sitting Governor Scott Walker.

Scholars suggest that national referenda are conducive and practical in a parliamentary democracy which explains why the Parliament opted to throw the Brexit vote to the people. Some also believed—to his political detriment apparently–that the a vote to stay, which Prime Minister Cameron had favored, would have a better chance to succeed in a referendum than in a free vote in the House of Commons.

There is another phenomenon present in the Brexit vote which was also quite fascinating for critical observers of the process. Unlike the U.S., the major media outlets in Britain opted not to finance and conduct polling efforts on Election Day. By design and with intention the media believed that they would not be able to obtain accurate exit polling data. Having been burned twice over the past few years by the political behavior of the British electorate—which confounded the pollsters in the 2015 national election and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum—the media was not prepared to embarrass itself again.

As a result, students of election and political polling were left with no accurate data.  They now must construct follow-up analyses and polls to determine the precise behavior of the various demographic, ethnic, religious, geographic, age, or religious segments of the population; all of which is subjected now to hindsight and selective memory.  While there is local precinct voting data and district breakdowns, analyses are all open to considerably greater speculation than scholars generally prefer.

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