In the summer of 2005, fear of the Polish Plumber had gripped all France. The country was preparing to vote in a referendum on a proposed constitution for Europe, and critics used the icon as a simulacrum for the tide of immigrants who would flow in, displacing local workers — one in 10 of whom were unemployed. The thing was, almost no-one had actually seen a Polish Plumber. France’s plumber’s union said there were just 650 in the whole country, mostly hired on short-term contracts to fill a shortfall of almost 6,000 that was crippling the construction industry.
Plumber-phobia paid off, though: France voted against, effectively killing off the constitution — which though it would have replaced the existing European Union treaties with a single text, given legal force to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, allowed policy decisions to be made by majority voting, had little bearing on immigration.
Clement Attlee, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1945-1951, famously described referendums as “a device of dictators and demagogues” — a dictum leaders of his country’s Labour and Conservative parties are likely to be ruefully recalling today, as they contemplate the ruins of Brexit.
For some, the referendum is an authentic form of democracy — democracy as it was practiced in its cradle, Athens. Democratic politics was embedded in the everyday culture of Athens by around mid-4 BCE, with a mass assembly being held every nine days. Every principal assembly — the first of four held in a month — discussed issues of strategic importance, ranging from state security, imports of wheat, and religion. Even in these assemblies, though, ordinary citizens — some 6,000 or so, or a fifth of those eligible, of whom generally turned up — did not take decisions of their own. Instead, they listened to speakers debate issues at length, before deciding questions by a show of hands.
This wasn’t, critically, the end of the process. In the event that it was felt that an error had been made because of demagoguery or self-promotion, People’s Courts selected annually by lottery were in place to correct the decisions of the assembly. There was also a Council of 500, or Boule, again selected randomly from qualified adults, which served as the assembly’s steering committee and administrative arm.
It’s important to note that the system didn’t always work well. Greed and hubris led to a succession of political decisions which led to Athens’ eventual annihilation. Alcibiades, hoping to outmanoeuvre his rival Nicias, advocated war on Syracuse, only to later defect to the side of Sparta. Nicias, who had opposed the war, was given charge, but led a dithering campaign that ended in disaster.
For decades, the main case against referendums has been cost — but with secure digital technology, that argument is wearing thin. It’s possible to conceive of systems, in the not-distant future, where the opinions of gargantuan numbers of citizens could be ascertained instantly. Advocates of direct democracy point to the success of Switzerland, where referenda are commonplace: There, a multi-lingual, multi-cultural state has demonstrated both political stability and economic success.
There are more fundamental arguments, though, against referendums, and for representative democracies — the kinds most modern nation-states have in place. For one, direct democracy reduces complex questions to simple yes-no answers — a problem cast in stark relief by the Brexit referendum. In this case, White English working class anxieties around unemployment and falling wages crystallised around immigration — a consequence of European Union membership. The economic data showed that immigration wasn’t the actual cause of their hardship, but the facts were obscured by demagoguery.
Brexit campaigners claimed these hardships could be mitigated by saving the UK was paying the European Union £ 350 million a week — a figure that gained wide currency, even though it had no basis in fact. The correct figure was closer to £ 170 million, and but that’s not counting indirect benefits, like British firms not having to register to do business in European countries.
Economist Simon Tilford noted, in a review of the evidence, that the real cause of hardship to the English poor, was consistent government underinvestment in housing, public health and job-creation — something immigrants could not be blamed for, since they were net contributors to public finances. “In short”, he wrote “attitudes to immigration are being fanned by the failure of successive governments to tackle the country’s real problems: Housing, the poor educational performance of the white working class and the financing of public services.”
The second problem with basing complex issues on referenda is they reduce democracy to the tyranny of the majority — an anathema to those who believe that the rule of law, not the will of the mob, ought to be the foundation of a modern polity. In Switzerland, voters banned the construction of mosque minarets in 2009, convinced that they faced an invasion from Islam, though there was a grand total of just four in the entire country.
It’s worth considering that much of the legislation that has shaped the modern UK would never have made the test of popular opinion: Racial discrimination wouldn’t be illegal, women wouldn’t have access to abortions, and the death penalty would still be used, if a referendum had been called on these issues. The UK has called 10 referenda on key constitutional issues, with politicians hailing them as a the genuine voice of the people — most on issues involving sovereignty, like the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland. There have been many more on local issues, like temperance.
Legally, parliament is free to ignore the outcome of a referendum, or to later legislate against its outcome. That’s unlikely to happen, for obvious political reasons — but in a political climate where it’s fashionable to rail against organised politics and politicians, Brexit is a cautionary tale on why the will of the people isn’t always the answer.