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The democratic mess we’ve created

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  • Leadership

The EU referendum is now done and the UK has voted to leave the EU. It was anything but a glorious advert for British democracy.

On one hand, we had a campaign that was willing and determined to set people against one another by their ethnicity, their class, and whether they were ‘experts’ or ‘elites’. The other campaign, when it wasn’t in melodrama mode, deployed the modern organisational technology of political narrowcasting. In so doing, it ignored a huge part of the country, on the basis of its probability of supporting its campaign. As a consequence, whole areas – including many traditional Labour areas in the north crucial to the outcome - heard only the discordant voice of Faragism.

Much has been made about the fact that this referendum was a choice about the types of values that our country epitomises. The referendum was indeed that but more besides. It was also a choice about the type of democracy we want to be. There are deeper democratic and social forces at play – how they are resolved will be one of the critical decisions we as a society make in the coming years.

For many decades now trust in representative democracy has been in decline. Interestingly, many of the advocates of leave framed their argument in terms of defending parliamentary democracy. But it was no such thing. Representative liberal democracy relies not only on the consent of people but on a set of institutional arrangements that can meet their needs and protect their rights – from independent legal institutions to international cooperation. ‘Take back control’ ultimately rejects this web of relationships in favour of some general ‘will of the people’. But how is this ‘will’ formed?

The answer is by substituting individual instincts and emotion for expertise, representation and institutional structures that put a break on populist impulses – if only to force us to pause for thought. Not only in politics but in education, health, business, local governance, and policing too, we are ever more willing to put our personal judgement ahead of ‘experts’ or ‘so-called experts’ as they have come to be known. The experts failed to convince their fellow countrymen and if their post-Brexit prophecies do not come to pass then the schism will become deeper.

Scrutiny and a degree of scepticism is not in itself a bad thing of course – the high-trust society had major drawbacks as Hillsborough, the increasing share of national wealth taken by the top, figures of trust preying on children, and the scandal of Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust all show. Healthy scepticism is just that – healthy. Too often, however, we are replacing scrutiny and scepticism with a trust in our own instinct and cynicism. It is ‘me the people’ rather than ‘we the people’.

So the legitimacy of hierarchy is threatened but then replaced with a notion of democracy centred around populist individualism – whether it’s ‘take back control’ or ‘make America great again’. The foolish aspect of the decision to hold this referendum was the notion that it would resolve anything. Instead, it has released the forces of populist individualism. Far from being a political alternative, populism is actually an alternative form of democracy. The aim is not simply to replace parties and powers within representative democracy, it seeks to replace representative democracy itself. These forces may be difficult to contain now. Labour is seen to have deserted whole swathes of its traditional support; Conservatives are seen as vacillating and untrustworthy. The mainstream is brittle.

This was all predictable. In a paper on populism, extremism and democracy back in 2013, I wrote of the referendum pledge:

“As a strategy to minimise the space for the UK’s populist radical right party (UKIP), David Cameron’s EU referendum pledge is likely to be a misguided one. It may split away a portion of his party, threaten his own leadership, give profile to a populist party that he cannot or will not match, boost the brand image of UKIP in the eurosceptic media, and fail to address the real underlying anxieties of voters who are attracted to UKIP. It is a considerable opportunity for UKIP as they are given the spotlight in a way they have not been able to secure in their entire history.”

This feels like a scenario that is closer to the current reality than a ‘lancing of the boil’ that the Prime Minister was hoping for. The same paper recommended a process of ‘contact democracy’ where the political mainstream engaged in a process of democratic engagement in a discursive rather than campaigning fashion. A discursive democracy is a very different approach to individualist populism and tired, narrowcasting, hierarchical representative democracy. Discursive democracy breaks down the barriers between experts and the people, the governing and the governed, policy and politics. In other words, it flattens democratic engagement and eschews false divides, opening out and making democracy more solidaristic as a consequence. 

Next week, the RSA will launch the Citizens’ Economic Council which is in an experiment in discursive, solidaristic, contact democracy. Essentially, a demographically diverse group of 50 - 60 citizens selected using stratified random sampling methodology will, over the course of a year, deliberate on the big economic questions of the time and make their own recommendations for future economic priorities – including the fundamental objectives on which economic policy is based. Economists have had a tough ride of late – justifiably some might argue – but this opens up the black box of economic thinking to the laity. We are intrigued to see the outcome.

This is but one experiment and others have been successfully run previously as tracked by Claudia Chwalisz in The Populist Signal. An unstated conviction at the heart of this experiment has to be that if representative democracy is to face continuing pressures then there has to be an alternative that is not akin to the referendum campaign we have just endured.

Democracy is hard; it requires work. Representative democracy was a hard won battle. The historian E.P.Thompson has described the two centuries-long making of the English working class. World War II contributed an accelerated politicisation. An exclusively class-centric politics doesn’t feel right for these more plural times. Class is important but just one component of political consciousness. However, we can’t just allow democracy to be a battle between an untrusted ‘elite’ and an impulsive political discourse. Democracy works best when it challenges all of us to think, discuss, and reflect. That’s where models such as the Citizens’ Economic Council come in.

There’s lots of unfinished business post-referendum: the presence in our midst of far-right violent extremism, how we can find the right relationship with the post-Eurozone/post-crash EU from which we intend to depart, and the future of political parties that are split in quite fundamental ways. But we desperately need to take time to understand the democratic mess that we have created. In reality, democratic forms co-exist. We might want to reflect on how we can bring people into the process of making better informed decisions about the national future. That means a bigger role for people in our democracy.

WATCH LIVE (29 June, 6pm BST): Can citizens be economists? 

Find out more about the RSA Citizens' Economic Council

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25 Comments

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  • As someone who observes the dynamics of interaction, the divisions that have taken place were a logical outcome of the voting process. I am surprised by the extent of the we-they class division and feel now is a good time to design a better way to merge diverse views, socio-economic backgrounds into a stronger base of collective intelligence. Democracy is, as one Canadian former PM put it, 'a blunt instrument.' Brexit is complex and no one, not even those who claim to be intellectually superior, could foresee the ramifications of either stay or leave. But all can learn from it. Apart from the apparent lack of 'What next?", this is a huge opportunity to reinvent a better way so that 'votes' don't divide but bring people together into a more empathic understanding. Listening to each other to generate better solutions. I wrote this piece for the HuffPo because I think that business can learn a lot from Brexit. Individual decision makers can also add to their mastery by backing out of blame to move toward generating better designs for bridging perspectives. Would appreciate your comments. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/what-lessons-can-business_b_10665404.html

  • Commenting, as a British citizen from distant Canada…

    There seem to be at least two conflicting concepts concerning “Brexit”. Or at least after the vote by over 70% of the eligible voters to remove Britain from the European Union. The first is that of ‘democracy’. What exactly is meant by democracy? Supposing we had a majority of one single vote, for this issue. Would this have been acceptable? What does it mean to be a parliamentary democracy, in which we theoretically elect others to represent us? I say theoretically, as we don’t have any say in who is Prime Minister, and so on, and “first-past-the-post” seems to be broken. Nor, it seems, do our MPs get to elect the PM. What we appear to have now is a confrontational system with little or no collaboration. Are we to be governed by referenda, in which case do we revert to the equivalent of an ancient Greek city state?

    The Harvard system of negotiation, outlined many years ago in a small book, “Getting to ‘Yes’”(Fisher & Ury, 1987) ,is about defining the problem to be addressed and an outcome satisfactory to all, and then working towards that outcome. We have, in this referendum, perhaps done something like this, except that there was no agreed outcome (perhaps there is now?), and certainly no clear definition of what the problem was in the first place. Was it control – as in “Take Back Control” – was it immigration, was it £350m/week? Was it the destruction of our relationship with Europe as with Farage’s speech in the European Parliament? 

    The second problem is the question of what the EU represented. I don’t like using old adages, however, reminding ourselves that we fail to learn from past mistakes is, I think, reasonable. Yet we are at least two generations away from the Second World War, arguably the most destructive event in the history of warfare, and we have “forgotten”. We, humans that we are, seem to have forgotten the reason that the European Steel and Coal Community was founded in 1951. It was “to make war unthinkable and materially impossible” and to promote democracy among the member states. 

    As outlined in, Keith Lowe’s book, Savage Continent (Lowe, 2012b), among others, about the aftermath of the war, which most people choose to believe ended in 1945, there continued to be chaos for many years after the war had officially ended. This included community rivalries of all sorts, and atrocities of a vengeful nature. Britain was not invaded, and yet the destruction in Cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Coventry, and, yes, London, was still evident throughout my childhood. On the European continent the destruction of infrastructure, social life and commercial was devastating. I saw Cologne, Antwerp, Arnhem and other devastated cities, as a child, I still remember our rationing.

    Here is Lowe on what seems to be a continuing, possibly even continuous, process since the Second World War.

    “…Between 1945 and 1947 tens of millions of men, women and children were expelled from their countries in some of the biggest acts of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen. This is a subject that is rarely discussed by admirers of the 'European miracle', and even more rarely understood: even those who are aware of the expulsions of Germans know little about the similar expulsions of other minorities across eastern Europe. The cultural diversity that was once such an integral part of the European landscape before, and even during, the war was not dealt its final death-blow until after the war was over.…” (Lowe, 2012a).

    The question now becomes what, if anything, was achieved by the referendum? Are we to become isolationist, or can we collaborate, even among ourselves? What, if anything, can be done to resuscitate the values inherent in the idea of democracy, or the internationalist, cosmopolitan, and inclusive idea suggested in 1951?

    The travesty of the “1%” highlights the undemocratic nature of neoliberalism which has steadily been introduced over the last seventy years. We have not eliminated war, or internecine conflicts, and the fragmentation of, for example, the Balkan states. What needs to be done, not simply in the EU, but in British society? We have ignored so many questions, simply because we perhaps consider them to be too difficult to give answers. Is it laziness on our part? Or is it our flawed “democracy”?

    Reference List

    Fisher, R. & Ury, W. (1987). Getting to "Yes". How to negotiate to agreement without giving in. London: Arrow.

    Lowe, K. (2012a). Introduction. In Savage Continent. Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (1 ed.,  New York: St. Martin's Press.

    Lowe, K. (2012b). Savage Continent. Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. New York: St. Martin's Press.


  • The best thing I've read post-Brexit is on the openDemocracy website. It argues that Brexiteers offered Britain an alternative that is a mirage – full access to the EU market without free movement of persons. The country has voted for something it will be impossible to deliver. See http://bit.ly/292s12E

  • On observing the reactions to the referendum I have noted with dismay the arrogance shown and the divisive nature of comments made by press and "experts" alike concerning the "leaver" voters. I live abroad part of the year and read the "New York Times", wherein I noticed that those who voted to leave were considered ill educated, or old or unable to make a rational decision compared to the young who were seen as dynamic and forward looking.  The fact that many of the "old" etc have worked hard and contributed to a prosperous nation, have experience, maturity and, possibly, a better education was not a consideration.  Furthermore the inability of the Remain camp to accept a democratic decision with any grace at all has been truly horrifying to behold and indicates just how far we have moved from that important concept.   It was like watching spoilt children throw a restaurant tantrum - embarrassing and absolutely disgusting.

    I have already contacted my MP and pointed out that a careful study of the demographic voting maps produced by the BBC indicate clear lines of fracture that must be addressed if we are to resolve the issues that are causing so much division and anger.  I observed there has been considerable talk of xenophobia and much use of the horribly racist and abusive term "little Englander" (would you say that to a Scot or a Welshman?)  but I noted that Shropshire and Powys are hardly over run by immigrants but are farming communities that are fed up with the CAP.  The entire east and south west coasts are stripped of their fishing fleets; the Rhondda is seeing its steel industry laid waste.  Perhaps in the mind of many a voter they were giving an ignorant and ill behaved political elite and the all-important-and-not-to be-touched City a very bloody nose that was well deserved.  As the old adage has it "pride comes before a fall" and goodness me what a fall it has been! I applaud them.

    The EU as a trading bloc is a wonderful concept but it cannot be allowed to supercede our democracy.  Most importantly our political establishment must get out and really listen, listen and listen again to what is going on in their constituencies.  There is a huge amount of anger and frustration bubbling away that is showing itself in ugly attacks on communities right now. So bad has it become that I can feel it in the atmosphere when I am back in the UK- it is almost palpable. We have the experience and  skills in the RSA to actively contribute to this process; lobbying MPs and industrialists,  supporting and enabling the wonderfully diverse peoples of our nation in expressing their views and helping, hopefully, to restore some balance.  Let's harness all the technological capability we have to building towards a rather more cheerful nation.

  • I have appalled by the extraordinary levels of arrogance and hubris of the metropolitan elite that has been evident through and since the referendum. I think that even your article Anthony may be an example of it. When you use the term 'better informed decisions' you sound like all those who have been saying 'if only other people knew as much as me they would have voted my way'. If we are to have an egalitarian democracy, then surely we have to allow each individual to make their decisions they way they want - and to chose how much or little they want to read or hear about the issues before they make their decisions.


    I also think that Richard Neil's comments on representative democracy are well made. Eight centuries ago the best way to get the views of people of people in Leeds or Exeter incorporated in national decisions was for a man (and it was then always a man) to get on a horse to come to a big group discussion, which happened to take place in London. It was then only the wealthy and masculine whose voices were heard, but sadly and ironically, by the time that women and the working class were able to take part in this process, it was already becoming out of date.  If we wanted to get everyone's views today, we wouldn't ask them to elect someone they didn't know to represent their views for the next five years. We have the communications technologies to ask them all directly.


    I raised this issue a while ago with a couple of government ministers, who expressed the view that ordinary people don't know enough about each issue to make important decisions. Their arrogance astounded me. They said that they had the benefit of civil service advisers to brief them. But it would be quite feasible for all the civil service advice given to MPs and Ministers to be posted for everyone who was interested to read and consider. Not everyone would be interested in hearing about, or voting on, the Harwich Harbour (dredging) bill.  But those who were could be as informed as the MP from Rutland, if they wanted to be.  And that would be their choice. 

    • I'd just throw into the pot how remote EU decision-making had become from everyday people with communities to live in, families to support, etc. Given that some of the  people appeared to be voting against remote elites who did not reflect their needs, opinions or interests, they will have had the wisdom of their decision reinforced by sneering and anti-democratic responses to the outcome of the vote. 


      I think democratic effectiveness could have been better if the European Council was the only vehicle for collaborative decisions be elected national government ministers supported by a relatively modest secretariat. This would alleviate the need for the Commission (the main source of remoteness and democratic deficit) and the European Parliament (at best duplicates work or creates work that could be done by national parliaments). Smaller at the top of the pyramid and broader at the bottom might create more stable democratic decision-making processes.

    • "you sound like all those who have been saying 'if only other people knew as much as me they would have voted my way'"

      Let me reassure that was not what I was saying. Inevitably, the blog is being read in a post-leave environment. But that is not when or why it was written. People made their choices. But whichever way this referendum had gone it was anything but a sparking example of the best that democracy could be.

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