Let’s put a ban on referendums. Since David Cameron’s hubristic decision to quell the tide of Eurosceptic unrest, this divisive form of democracy has engineered the future of the British political landscape. From assertions that the vote on 23 June was a binding exercise of democracy, to the insistence that the way forward encompasses a second round, the aftermath of the Brexit referendum has taken no prisoners.
Observed in its most simple form, a referendum is a vote in which a question is put to the electorate in its entirety. Voters thus select a response, in theory allowing an insight into the general consensus among the grassroots populace. Referendums can be advisory or binding and are often seen as a direct method of democracy, allowing the public to openly voice their position on an issue.
However, according to British political procedure, referendums are not constitutionally binding. On paper, they are called to advise the government in the steps they should take in order to resolve an issue. Yet, reflecting upon the outcome of the vote over two years ago, it would seem that this constitutional reality has been overlooked in favour of a far more aggressive, irrevocable approach to the country’s choice. Theresa May didn’t have to invoke article 50 when she did, and negotiations were never required to commence. Contrary to the spiel of prominent Brexiters, the decision made on 23 June was not an unnegotiable act. It was a divisive instance of political guidance and not a governmental ultimatum.
This method of democracy lacks nuance. Historically, referendums in the United Kingdom have favoured a binary choice. The three major decisions that have been put to the entire British electorate have offered up two options, yes or no, either one or the other, with no in-between. Forcing the electorate into one of two camps suffocates debate and ignores distinction. The events which have unfurled before our eyes since the EU referendum of 2016 could perhaps have been alleviated, streamlined or even avoided if it were not for the reductionist approach which our government took to such a contentious and complex issue.
Referendums feed divisions. The nature of this democratic exercise goes hand in hand with the emergence of divisive discourse. Suddenly, the side you choose becomes indicative of who you are, who you associate with and how you conduct yourself. The vote in 2016 divided families, friendships and relationships. It unearthed the intrinsic divisions within this country’s two main parties bringing disunity and friction to the heart of government and stagnating any potential progress. Bequeathing such power to a method which adopts such division will not and never shall bring resolution. As was demonstrated by the diminutive margin upon which the decision to leave was based, referendums can provide results which are blindingly inconclusive, tangling up government and taking the country with it.
Yet, this flawed and deficient method continues to hold its stead. The calls from those in favour of remaining in the European Union for a second referendum are misplaced. Another referendum mirroring the first cannot deliver the resolution which this country desperately requires. If Britain is to re-think its position on Europe, then its approach must be a holistic one which provides equal and representative options for each and every outcome. Reducing such monumental decisions to a binary choice highlights the incompetency and elitism at the heart of our political system. The public is aware of and receptive to nuance, thus instead of championing a second referendum, those in favour of turning the tide of Brexit must advocate for a second choice, one which encompasses all sides of the argument. For, as we have witnessed over the past two years, referendums do more harm than good.