Why was the 2016 EU Referendum an affront to democracy


The purpose of this post is to explain how the 2016 EU Referendum didn’t just fail to be democracy at its best, but was democracy delivered so poorly that no democrat should be offering it lip service. Issues of the lies told in the campaigns and breaking of electoral law are both key points to this argument and obvious problems, but perhaps the biggest problem, the one that has put the UK Parliament into gridlock, is so obvious that people don’t tend to pull back far enough to actually see it: the Leave option was not well defined. For all the potential complexity of EU membership in general terms, the UK’s actual terms of membership are precise and defined and so the Remain option was exact.

By contrast, the Leave vote was vague and promises were made all about a huge spectrum. Leave was a genre that spanned from ‘No one is talking about leaving the Single Market’ to ‘Hard Brexit’. But whatever is delivered must be well defined and precise: you can’t have a superposition of Brexits, where the UK simultaneously leaves the Trade Union and is in it. But no exact and precise delivery of Brexit actually commands a majority with the public or with Parliament.

It is this problem ― a well defined Remain Vs an ill defined Leave, and the lack of majority for any defined Leave ― that this post focuses on.

UK’s precise and favourable membership to the EU, and it’s immense sovereignty from within

As Britons are (far too) aware, in 2016 the UK had a Referendum on its membership with the EU. Membership with the EU is not some binary thing, though; EU membership is a potential spectrum that runs from the ‘Premium Membership’ what the UK currently has, through ‘Standard Membership’ and into various ‘sub-membership’ arrangements, like the Common Travel Area, European Economic Area, The Trade Unions, The Single Market and Schengen.

What this means is that not even EU membership is a well defined and exact point. Any member state has the ability to negotiate special terms. And the UK is an especially prolific example of this.

The UK has never been ruled from without by the EU. It has successfully opted out of agreements not in its interests: The UK opted out of Schengen ― you need a passport to get in to the UK, even if you enter from the EU; The UK conducts all its own checks on all scheduled passengers (even from the EU); The UK can even refuse entry to, or remove, any EU national considered to pose a threat on a lesser threshold than any other EU member state; it also isn’t in the Eurozone; The UK gets a rebate on its membership fees; and the UK has a veto on some EU laws.

Historically, it’s difficult to tell if the UK has been pro-EU or if the EU has been pro-UK. But it certainly seems that is was at least one of these two options. The UK voted in favour of 95% of the laws the EU has passed, and only voted against 2% (it abstained from the remaining 3%) (ITV News, 2016). In addition to that, some of the most iconic parts of EU law have been reformed or instigated as part of UK Political Party Manifestos.

Regional Funds (Conservative, 1974), foreign policy coordination (Conservative, 1979 and 1992), Common Fisheries Policy (Conservative, 1983 and 1987), Common Agricultural Policy (Conservative, 1987), The Single Market (Conservatives, 1992 and 2015, & Labour 1997), EU authority to fine member states that don’t live up to expectations (Conservative 1992), EU expansion (Conservative, 1992, & Labour 2001 and 2005), ex-Soviet states’ membership to the EU (Conservative, 1992 & Labour 2001), Qualified Majority Voting for Brussels decision making (Labour, 1997), Defence collaboration (Labour, 2001 and 2005), industrial and regional budget priorities (Conservative, 1983), the adoption of energy efficient light bulbs (Ian Pearson, Labour MP, 2006), Proportional Voting in the EU Parliament (Labour, 1997) (Bristol For Europe, 2018).

Although EU membership in general terms is not well defined, the UK’s actual terms of membership are precisely defined.

All this also puts the lie to the idea that the UK electorate hasn’t had its say or representation inside the EU.

The Leave spectrum of options

The above description of the UK’s membership to the EU may seem complex, and it is. But it is also exact. The same cannot be said for leave options. Where Remain was a well defined point, Leave was a broad Church. It’s not quite accurate to say that the Leave option was a spectrum, because that implies there was a simple notching up of options from the softest form of Brexit to the hardest form of Brexit; but even that oversimplifies the options has they were promised.

Each right, responsibility, advantage and other feature of the EU, European Economic Area (EEA) and other European Agreements (e.g. European Courts, Science Research etc) was treated although it were completely modular and independent from other rights and responsibilities. The idea of staying inside the Single Market was treated as if it had no impact on Freedom of Movement of labour; independent UK trade deals were treated as if they could co-exist with UK membership to the Customs Union. As a result, no clean spectrum was ever presented. It’s more of a mess.

There are defined points with in the ‘Brexit Mess’. Prime Minister May’s deal was a well defined (and practical) point inside the larger Brexit Mess, although it was resoundingly unpopular. Some deals that third countries have are treated as if they are off-the-shelf Brexit options, and they also are well defined (“Norway”, “Canada”). Although, these are also not particularly favourable to the UK and to make them palatable they are often appended with varying numbers of repetitions of “plus”, giving us the “Norway plus” or the “Canada plus plus plus” deal. Each “plus” means nothing and ‘undefines’ each deal. “No deal” is also well defined, although it is a catastrophe. What is undefined (and apparent nonsense) is “Managed no deal” ― where the UK would put some deals in place, and then embrace the ‘No deal’ Brexit.

In the same way the defined Brexits ‘Norway’ and ‘Canada’ are surrounded by ill-defined “plus” nonsense, and the “No deal” is surrounded by ill-defined “Managed” versions of itself, so the May Deal has the same problem: probably best referred to as “The May Deal, minus”. The “minus” refers to changes in how the UK will handle its only land border with the EU: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That border will have to satisfy the UK’s calls to ‘control its border’ (as seen above, this is already the case), the Good Friday Agreement (which essentially calls for no border enforcement) and the EU’s market. The May Deal allows for that border to be moved into the Irish Sea, between Ireland and Great Britain. It essentially allows for Northern Ireland to Remain in the EU by Leaving Great Britain. This is called the backstop.

The ‘backstop’ is the only deliverable solution to the Irish border problem caused by Brexit (and it’s more a mitigating management plan than a solution). However, there are ill-defined proposals to do away with the backstop, and they are the ‘minus’ in the “May Deal, minus”.

It may seem like a moot point to talk about the quality of democracy in the 2016 EU Referendum by talking about the Irish border, as no one knew about the problems the Irish border would cause and therefore wasn’t anyone’s consideration at the time of voting. But this is the wrong way to look at it for two reasons: having something so major pop up after the fact is an indictment on the quality of democracy that was delivered because being informed is an essential part of a democracy, but also people did know about the problem (Douglas-Scott, 2014; Kenny, 1987; Cronin, 2015; McCall, 2015). There was some transference from the academic writings into the media (e.g. McCall, 2015) but it didn’t ever capture the conversation in the way it has since.


48.1% of the voters in the 2016 EU Referendum were united around a singular, defined point. That is a very high density of voters around a single idea. 51.9% of the voters were dispersed around numerous defined and ill-defined, deliverable and undeliverable ideas. That is a relatively low density of voters. Moreover, no deliverable and defined proposal commands a majority.

Demands that Brexit ― any Brexit ― must be delivered, and that the UK Government and Parliament must “get on with it” ― whatever it is ― are simply naive. They often are the calls of ranks of the UK electorate who fear being ignored once again. But, pretending that this Brexit won because Brexit in general won is making a mistake.

It is like comparing the viewing figures of a particular show against the viewing figures of an entire genre. For example, 17 million viewers tuned in for the finale of BBC’s The Bodyguard. But panel shows get more than 19 million viewers. Is that sufficient to say that ‘QI’ has better ratings than The Bodyguard? Of course not, QI gets less than 5 million of the >19 million views than panel shows get more broadly. In fact, no one panel show has better ratings than The Bodyguard.


Withdraw Article 50

The 2016 EU Referendum simply wasn’t good enough to stake the future of the UK on. It wasn’t democratic, for the above reasons.

And, as discussed in an earlier post, there’s no way to run The People’s Vote: The May Deal has lost legitimacy, and No Deal cannot be allowed to win a referendum vote. (I may even be writing this too early, as by Tuesday the UK Parliament may have made its steps to make No Deal impossible as well.) That would leave The People’s Vote with only one option: Remain. And that isn’t worth running.

If it gets to 29 March 2019 and there are no deals that have been arranged, the automatic operation of law should be changed to withdraw Article 50, not enact it and leave without a deal.



Dear UK, Why Are You Leaving the EU? (2018) [online]. Directed by Bristol For Europe. (no place) Youtube. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_atSsfbExvs [Accessed 30 December 2018].


Cronin, M. (2015) Educate that You May be Free? Religion and Critical Thinking in Post-Boom Ireland. Études irlandaises. (40-2), pp. 75–88.

Douglas-Scott, S. (2014) British Withdrawal from the EU: An Existential Threat to the United Kingdom. Future of UK and Scotland blog [online]. 20 . Available from: http://www.academia.edu/download/35820514/UK_exit_posting.pdf.


ITV News (2016) Fact check: ‘Britain outvoted more than other countries in EU’. Available from: https://www.itv.com/news/update/2016-06-09/fact-check-britain-outvoted-more-than-other-countries-in-eu/ [Accessed 20 January 2019].


Kenny, I. (1987) In Good Company: Conversations with Irish Leaders. (no place) Gill and Macmillan.

McCall, C. (2015) How ‘Brexit’ Could Destabilise the Irish Peace Process. Cross-Border Review Yearbook 2016–European Crisis and its Consequences for Borders and Cooperation. pp. 157–159.

5 thoughts on “Why was the 2016 EU Referendum an affront to democracy”

    1. I wonder whether there will be a merging of psychology and history in the future: Psychistory.
      Because politics isn’t going to be the explanatory force in this: politics is clearly against Brexit. It’s about whipping up feelings that don’t map to reality.
      So — the historical question becomes ‘why/how can the populace be whipped up like this?’ or ‘Why do nonrational forces drive major political decisions?’. The question may even become ‘What’s the point in politicians, if they just end up following the whims of a whipped up citizenry?’

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