Five years on from the 2016 Brexit referendum, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell argue that there are lessons to be learned from the past about how we can better organise and conduct referendums in the future, by ensuring better information for voters, enacting up to date elections regulation, seeking greater public input as part of a clearer process, with the endgame and how to get there agreed as far in advance as possible.
23 June marked five years since the Brexit referendum. The subsequent Brexit process was drawn out and fractious, marked by deep division in the country, and heated arguments about the proper roles of parliament, the courts, the devolved administrations, and the public in the UK’s democratic system. Now, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, politics remains far from ‘normal’.
Five years on from June 2016, we should reflect on what lessons can be learnt for using referendums differently and better in the future – not least because further referendums may be on the cards. This applies most obviously in Scotland, over possible independence, but also potentially in Northern Ireland, where the Constitution Unit has recently led a project on the conduct of any future referendum on Irish unification. Both of these issues have risen in prominence partly due to divisions over Brexit.
Drawing on our recent Northern Ireland work, as well as the important report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which sat during 2017–18, we identify five key lessons.
1. Before embarking on a referendum, the effects of both possible outcomes should be clear
Referendums by their nature require a simple choice between (usually two) options. To enable informed choices by voters, and also to avoid arguments afterwards, the meaning of those options should be as clear as possible. In the case of Brexit, the Leave option was far from fully specified, leading to long and difficult post-referendum wrangles about how to interpret the result. Civil servants were famously forbidden by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, from preparing for a Leave outcome: as the chief official at Defra (one of the departments most affected by Brexit) has explained: ‘It was only on the day of the referendum that any kind of discussions had started about what might happen if the answer was a no’. This approach should never be countenanced again. As far as possible, the full implications of change must be put before the voters. Ideally (as occurred in the referendum on the voting system in 2011), the proposed change should already have been legislated for in detail, with the referendum leading directly to its implementation or repeal.