IN THE POSTWAR ERA, two referendums have been held in Britain. Both asked the British people to answer a simple question about a complicated issue. In 1975, the question was whether Britain should join the European Economic Community (EEC). Roughly two out of three voters said yes. In 2016, it was whether Britain should stay in the European Union (EU). Just under 52% voted no.
Even fervent advocates of Britain’s break from the EU are now hard-pressed to name one result of Brexit that has made Britain a better place. Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney has noted that whereas in 2016 Britain’s economy was 90% the size of Germany’s, it’s now only 70% as big. For many people, including business owners and farmers, Brexit has been a disaster. Polls indicate that 56% of the British people think Brexit was a mistake.
Similarly, an increasing number of Americans take the view that electing an ignorant, huckstering, celebrity-obsessed narcissist as president of the United States — in the same year as Brexit — was unwise. The midterm elections show that Donald Trump’s brand has been tarnished and that his grip on the Republican Party might be slipping.
Yet, while Brexit and the election of Trump caused severe shocks to both Britain and the US, it looks like the damage of Brexit will be worse and last longer. That should be a reminder that referendums are a terrible way to resolve big issues.
Trump’s four years were bad enough, to be sure. He coarsened political discourse, inflamed already severe divisions in the US, and lied so shamelessly that trust in politicians has been seriously eroded. Also, by refusing to abide by the results of a presidential election and whipping up popular rage against the institutions on which any democracy rests, including an independent judiciary and free press, he undermined trust not only in politicians but in the democratic system itself.
Still, the election of a bad candidate to the highest office is not unheard of, and a robust liberal democracy can survive blundering, even crooked leaders. Whatever one thinks of President Joe Biden, he has restored some calm in the body politic. The worry among liberal Americans that the end of US democracy was at hand is not as acute as it was just a year ago. US allies are also a little less nervous about the world’s most powerful democracy.
Even though Trump’s appointees have tilted the Supreme Court in a radical rightwing direction that seems out of step with most Americans, the main democratic institutions have survived the shock of his presidency. And as long as he does not return for another term in 2024, much of the damage he did can probably be undone.
The same thing cannot be said about Brexit. That Britain opted not only to leave the EU but also the single European market will continue to hurt the British economy for years to come. The promise that this setback will be more than compensated by terrific new trade deals with the US, Japan, and other countries far away from Europe is proving to be a pipe dream. As a result, most people in Britain will be worse off and the country will continue to lag behind its neighbors for the foreseeable future.
The former prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once claimed that postwar, post-imperial Britain could only remain a significant power inside Europe, rather than in “splendid isolation,” in the phrase used by 19th century chauvinists. That is why he wanted his country to join the EEC in 1961. While Britain only managed this in 1973 because of obstruction by French leader Charles de Gaulle, Macmillan turned out to be correct. Despite frequent frictions with Brussels, Britain played a major role inside Europe as a staunchly democratic power which finely balanced the statism of France and the naive federalist dreams of Germany.
The 2016 referendum destroyed that balance and has doomed Britain to be a much less significant power. That is the problem with referendums. Unlike elections with unfortunate results, they cannot be easily undone. The British people were asked an unfair question. To stay or to leave was an absurd choice. People were not asked under what conditions Britain should leave, what kind of country they wanted as a result, and what the future relationship with the EU should be.
When Winston Churchill suggested holding a referendum in Britain in 1945 to decide whether to extend his wartime coalition government, Labor Party leader Clement Attlee refused. The idea of a referendum was “just not British” in his view. In fact, he said, it was “an instrument of Nazism.”
Margaret Thatcher, who adored Churchill, and whose own politics were a challenge to everything the socialist Attlee had stood for, called referendums “a device of dictators and demagogues.”
They were both right.