Expert View

Think of People’s Vote as “deliberative democracy”

by Michael Emerson | 07.09.2018

Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Brussels.

One way of understanding the proposed People’s Vote is to view it through the lens of “deliberative democracy”. This concept in modern political theory is a model for handling problems of intractable conflict through an iterative process.

According to deliberative democracy, there can be a first consultation on what to do, based on little information and maybe much preconceived emotion. The intended result of the consultation, however, is to sharpen the issue, and lead into a period of intense debate and deeper dissemination of relevant information. After that there is a second consultation, which can provide a different and better-informed result. The UK body politic now seems to be heading in this direction, with increasing public support for a new referendum.

The Brexit story has seemed so far to be one of a catastrophic triumph of political populism. A flawed referendum leads to political chaos and even the possible disintegration of what was supposed to be one of the world’s most stable and mature democracies.

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The whole problem could have been avoided in the first place if the Cameron government had been sensible enough to make the referendum result subject to what many countries call a constitutional majority, usually of around two-thirds, for changes of manifest of constitutional importance. One can note, moreover, that the 1975 European referendum would have passed this test, whereas 2016 one of course did not. But we are where we are.

This way of telling the story highlights the hazards of indulging in referenda in the name of direct democracy, rather than sticking to the customary parliamentary democracy. The hazards of direct democracy, however, can be overcome by transformation of the process into one of iterative deliberative democracy.

This model refutes the simplistic and interest-driven objections to a People’s Vote – for example, when the prime minister says it would be an affront to democracy. Making a decision when one has more information and has time to think about it is exactly what deliberative democracy is about.

Similarly, we hear Nigel Farage saying that this amounts to carrying on asking the question until the right answer is found. However, this does not dispose of the logic of deliberative democracy – or, if one prefers the language of good old English common sense, the right to second thoughts before deliberating over matters of irreversible choice. A second thought once the details are clear doesn’t imply a third or fourth choice.

If one takes a step back from the current Brexit imbroglio and views it through this lens, it is possible to sketch a more positive interpretation of the underlying political dynamics that we are witnessing – however painful the process of correcting for David Cameron’s choice of a one-shot referendum.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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