The Brexit Paradox: This is not Representative Democracy

In the UK, voters elect a Member of Parliament who is there to represent the views of their constituents.  This is representative democracy, and the UK has survived pretty well with this form of government.  It is one of the many things that the Romans Have Done For Us.

Members of Parliament are supposed to do what their constituents tell them to do.  They may have loyalty to the political party to which they belong, but they should, at least in theory, represent the views of their constituents.

The recent referendum on whether the UK remains a part of, or leaves, the European Union, has caused a great deal of uncertainty, and it is clear, when you think of it, why this is so.

Consider the stylized map of the UK below, where the country is split into three constituencies.  Each constituency has 1 million electors, who all vote.

Constituency A votes 800,000 Leave : 200,000 Remain;
Constituency B votes 400,000 Leave : 600,000 Remain; and
Constituency C votes 400,000 Leave : 600,000 Remain.

This means that there is a total of 800,000 + 400,000 + 400,000 = 1,600,000 voting for Leave; and 200,000 + 600,000 + 600,000 = 1,400,000 voting for Remain.

ReferendumCounting

This is democratic.  The will of the people is that, by a sizeable majority, Leave wins.

However, when this is ratified in Parliament*, by the representatives of the people, the consituents’ MPs, the following happens:

The MP for Consituency A votes Leave;
The MP for Consitutency B votes Remain;
The MP for Consituency C votes Remain.

We are then left in the paradoxical position that a referendum result‡ cannot – under a representative democracy system – be implemented by the MPs.

This is a key constitutional question, and one that cannot be solved by Parliament or the Judiciary†.  This is a fundamental issue for British (and European) democracy.  And its importance cannot be overstated.


* there is a fierce debate on which body needs to invoke Article 50(2) of the Treaty of European Union, but let us assume that Parliament would make this decision ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’ under Article 50(1).
† it is clear that the decision will be the subject of Judicial review, right up to the Supreme court, but this will merely be a judicial rather than a democratic decision.
‡ this is not quite the situation in the actual Brexit referendum result (although there is no way of telling, as MPs’ constituencies are different from referendum counting districts), but the fact remains that the result of a referendum can be inconsistent with implementation under representative democracy.

 

Update 3 November 2016: The High Court (subject to appeal to the Supreme Court) has confirmed that Parliament should decide how to implement withdrawal, as the powers of Royal Perogative would have an impact on Statute, which is not normally the case when treaties are made or revoked.  Brexit is a special case, as it would overturn Statute in a way that was not envisaged in the European Communities Act 1972.  The full judgment is here).

2 thoughts on “The Brexit Paradox: This is not Representative Democracy”

  1. theoretically correct given the example, but in practice would not be the result – one, MPs do not know for sure from the referendum which way their political constituency voted, and two, since the majority of vote counting districts outside London and Scotland/NI were yellow likely a majority of constituencies likely voted leave so if the referendum had been done like a general election the outcome would’ve likely been the same – majority of constituencies vote leave.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Based on the referendum result, it would appear that MPs should, overall, vote leave (assuming that their constituencies mirror the referendum counting districts). And MPs could argue that they individually should follow the referendum result rather than follow their constituents’ majority view. They could however take a Burkeian/trustee view on the power of representatives ( http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html ). Although it is worth noting that he was not returned at the following election(!)

      My point is that a referendum followed by a Parliamentary vote could produce the situation above (the popular vote being leave but the MPs’ vote being remain). This is a further question as to whether Parliament is – and should – be sovereign, overturning the (perhaps theoretical) situation above.

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