The most surprising thing about the Brexit vote, to me, was that there was a Brexit vote—that the question was put to a nationwide referendum. Many US states made provisions in their constitutions for referenda and initiative petitions in their constitutions during the Progressive Era. Even my own state, Massachusetts, did it—the only New England state other than Maine to do so. This year’s crop includes an initiative petition to prevent cruelty to farm animals, one to increase the tax on incomes over $1 million, and one to legalize possession of marijuana under Massachusetts law. Not exactly Brexit-level questions.
But there is no tradition here of national referenda. Even at the start of the Civil War, when the southern states sought to secede, most acted by way of a convention of elected delegates. Three of the thirteen held referenda, though in one state, Virginia, a regional difference in the vote led to the breakup of the state, with what is now West Virginia remaining in the Union—a nice parallel to the Brexit vote in the UK and Scotland.
More to the point, to put the EU question directly to the voters flies in the face of what I thought I knew about the UK constitution, particularly the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty. Some of the legal reaction to Brexit seems to bear this out. Assuming for the moment that the decision to invoke Article 50 of the EU Treaty isn’t a matter within the prerogative powers (if it were, the decision would be for the government), doesn’t Parliament still need to vote? On the other hand, having held the referendum, the UK’s leaders can hardly ignore its outcome.
There’s a first time for everything, and maybe the novelty of the Brexit referendum shouldn’t count against it. But from an American perspective, I think it is right to view such referenda with deep suspicion. Here is Madison from Federalist No. 10:
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens and greater sphere of country over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.
Now, no one can look at our Congress in 2016 and find much evidence of citizens whose wisdom has done a very good job of discerning the true interests of the country or who have shown themselves unlikely to sacrifice the national interest to temporary or partial considerations. And indeed, Madison goes on in very next sentence, to say: “On the other hand, the effect may be inverted.” But if you think Congress is doing a bad job, imagine if all the big issues confronting the nation were up for a popular vote!
There was no question that the great weight of elite opinion in the UK was against Brexit, and as things have developed since the vote, it seems that many of their worries are most likely correct. Brexit will not be cost-free. The UK is not going to have the benefits of membership without paying the price. Moreover, the supporters of Brexit included unsavory characters and outright racists, and the role of immigration in the debate had elements of xenophobia, just as the immigration debate does here in America.
And yet there is also something fundamentally American about the motivation for Brexit, namely the deeply held view that laws shouldn’t be made by people you didn’t elect, and that your traditional ways of self-government should be respected. (Happy Fourth of July, by the way, to my American readers!) That was the ideology of the American Revolution, and I would add that the Revolutionaries were much more closely connected in terms of history, politics, and nationality with the British than the British today are with the other EU member-states, even though the Ocean is much broader than the Channel. In other words, Brexit has illustrated the EU’s democratic legitimacy deficit.
Some say that the main problem is that the policies of the EU and of the UK’s own government have not sufficiently met the needs of the ordinary people outside of London who voted to leave. This is part of the problem, certainly, and I would diagnose (in part) the problem of Trumpism here in the United States similarly. But that’s not the entire problem on either side of the Atlantic. Here in the United States, our customary political institutions have been weakened by—I really can’t put this better than Jonathan Rauch did recently in The Atlantic, and you should read his article. In the UK, part of the problem is that the EU means to be an “ever closer union,” which at the end of the day means a full union, and yet there is no elected European legislature with full legislative power, no popularly elected European president, and courts that, fairly or not, are felt to infringe on the UK’s right of self-governance. In short, none of the three branches of the EU government really seem to the British people to have democratic legitimacy. This, by the way, is a problem that in my view the United States doesn’t really have in a serious way. There may be a lot of dummies in Congress, but they are our dummies.
This is why I’m of two minds about the Brexit. Of course I think it was not in the UK’s economic interest, and of course I think it is a major blow to the EU, which is an important institution for world order. I would have been much happier had the British people felt connected enough with the EU to vote to stay. But I don’t think it is right to cast the voters as rubes who hate the Poles and were deceived by the likes of Nigel Farage. There’s a principle behind the vote that is worth careful thought.