On the day that Britain decides whether its destiny lies within or without the European Union, I will be in California. On the surface, I could not be more far removed from the Brexit dilemma. The cool, clear Californian air seems a world away from the toxic atmosphere currently engulfing Britain. And yet, California offers a unique vantage point on the EU referendum. For the Golden State is the clearest example of a polity rendered, at times, almost ungovernable by a mania for direct democracy.
In recent years, Britain has experienced its own direct democracy craze. In 2011, Britain held its first nationwide referendum in decades on whether to change the voting system. Three years later, Scotland voted on whether it wished to secede from the United Kingdom. And this Thursday, Britain’s third major referendum in five years will reveal whether Britons wish to remain members of the European Union. Arguably, the three most crucial decisions on the country’s constitutional makeup over the past decade have been put to the people.
Remarkably, these recent referenda have occurred under a Conservative prime minister. The party has been the historic defender of representative democracy and parliamentary sovereignty. Yet under pressure from populist Eurosceptic and nationalist forces, David Cameron’s premiership has witnessed a significant shift towards popular sovereignty.
In theory, though, the EU referendum is not legally binding on Parliament. MPs would still have to pass legislation taking Britain out of the EU, if that is what the people decide, and they would not necessarily have to abide by the referendum result. In practice, it would be almost politically inconceivable for politicians to overrule the popular choice, even though previous European plebiscites, such as the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon, were re-run after politicians refused to accept the initial decision of voters.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP and former mayor of London, has argued that “you cannot express the sovereignty of Parliament and accept the 1972 European Communities Act.” It is true that, under the 1972 Act, if there is a conflict between an act of the British Parliament and EU law, then EU law prevails. However, Parliament passed the European Communities Act and it can repeal this legislation if it wished, ensuring that Parliament remains sovereign. Consequently, a majority in Parliament could vote for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
More thoughtful conservative Eurosceptics, such as the polemical political commentator Peter Hitchens, favor this route as it upholds parliamentary sovereignty. They are uneasy about the ramifications of a referendum as it threatens that principle. By contrast, Johnson and many other “Vote Leave” campaigners appear blind to this. Ironically, they regard the referendum, an expression of popular sovereignty, as the means to restore parliamentary sovereignty, seemingly oblivious to the potential conflict between the two.
There are signs that Britons are getting tired of direct democracy, though. The scientist and public intellectual Richard Dawkins, never one to shy away from controversy, declared: “It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote [in the EU referendum] . . . we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy.” This view was echoed by the comedian David Mitchell: “That is so totally what I think, but I didn’t realize until I heard it.” Both Dawkins and Mitchell are adamant that the EU referendum “should be a matter for parliament.”
Yet if Britain votes to leave the European Union, we are likely to witness further referenda in the coming years. Scottish Nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon has refused to rule out a second Scottish Independence referendum if Brexit occurs. Furthermore, Sinn Fein has threatened a new vote in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, on unification with Ireland (an EU member) in the event of Brexit. In the immediate aftermath, at least, Brexit would mean the two parts of Ireland would be separated by an EU land border. This would put pressure on the “Good Friday Agreement,” which is woven into a broader European process of integration. The resulting border controls and customs checks would potentially impact trade and the free movement of peoples between the two countries.
Ultimately, therefore, to maintain a great nation, and its greatest gift to the modern world, representative democracy under a parliamentary system, a vote to Remain, at least on this occasion, is the only option.