Referendums are the ultimate public poll – giving all registered voters a direct say over a major decision of national importance. And yesterday 33 million voters took part in the EU referendum, the highest turnout in any UK-wide election since 1992 at 72%. This was a monumental decision that will have ramifications for decades to come.
Referendums can be advisory, but in all recent UK examples they have been effectively binding (in David Cameron’s words an ‘instruction that must be delivered’). Faced with a party divided over Europe, the Prime Minister decided to try his hand at negotiating an improved deal before turning over the final decision to the public – in remarkably similar fashion to Harold Wilson in 1975. Now the decision has heralded his own forthcoming exit from office.
But as soon as the public has spoken, politics as usual can make a swift return. Instead of a referendum kick-starting a process of public engagement, there’s a risk the public’s participation becomes a ‘one-night wonder’. People – many with a fresh appetite for politics – are told there is nothing more for them to do (while activists struggle to find an outlet for campaigning energy). All the issues unearthed by the referendum, whether or not they are strictly relevant to the ballot question, are swept back into the narrow confines of party or parliamentary politics rather than kept alive for on-going public debate.
Scotland’s broad and deep public engagement during its independence referendum was admired the world over. But the Smith Commission set up in the aftermath to negotiate further power (implementing ‘The Vow’) took place behind closed doors, with virtually no space for public or civil society involvement. This led to calls for a citizen-led constitutional convention to give the public the right to decide where power should lie within the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. By end of the last Parliament, all parties except the Conservatives were committed to holding one – but of course, it has not taken place.
Despite an unremittingly negative campaign, at 72% turnout the EU referendum defied gloomy predictions that the rest of the UK could never step up to the levels of interest experienced in Scotland. A relatively short campaign (around six months, compared with Scotland’s two years) undoubtedly dented the capacity for people to become informed and to get to grips with the issues on their own terms – instead of being mediated by the formal campaigns.
Nonetheless, the referendum demonstrated a clear public appetite to engage with constitutional issues of where power should lie. As such, it should have killed the argument that matters of constitutional or political reform are separate from bread and butter issues and deserving of less attention. In fact, constitutional questions underpin everything from the economy and immigration to national identity or public services – as the Scottish independence referendum and the EU referendum have both shown. Recent small-scale studies have shown the considerable ability of randomly selected citizens (through so-called ‘citizens’ assemblies’) to deliberate on complex constitutional matters such as local devolution. And now mass-scale engagement in constitutional referendums suggests the same.
As Britain takes stock of the biggest constitutional change it has seen for a generation, this must be the beginning not the end of public involvement in shaping our future democracy. Everything from negotiating Brexit terms to implementing much-needed reforms of our own institutions should be on the table, involving people, parties and politicians. Grafting referendums onto parliamentary democracy only gets us so far. But effectively handling the nitty-gritty of Brexit, coupled with bridge-building across geographic and social divides – and this referendum has laid those divides bare – will require a much deeper attention to public involvement in shaping our future democracy.
The high turnout of this referendum shows people care about the constitutional future of this country, and that’s not going to change any time soon. So let’s keep the public centre stage in the coming weeks, months and years.
Leaving the European Union and determining the future shape of the United Kingdom are huge and difficult tasks – far too difficult to be left to politicians behind closed doors.
The next phase for Britain’s constitutional future requires the involvement and consent of as many people as possible. Now let’s make it happen.