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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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