Dysfunctional Democracy and Referenda: The Case of Brexit

Dysfunctional Democracy and Referenda: The Case of Brexit
Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's UKIP party, in front of a 'Grassroots Out' banner, London, March 31, 2016 (AP photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth).

The current era of democratic politics in the West is marked by dysfunction. Long-standing political institutions are creaking. The establishment consensus of free trade, economic openness and liberal migration policies that has buttressed the U.S.-led postwar liberal system is quickly losing its popular legitimacy. Since the late 1980s, electoral turnout has fallen in much of Europe; the joint vote share of center-right and center-left parties is hitting all-time lows; and various populist and anti-establishment parties have filled the void with the promise of easy solutions. At a time when the European Union is heavily criticized for being run by unelected technocrats, out of touch with ordinary people’s lives, a referendum to let the people have their say seems to many like the right way out of the contemporary democratic malaise.

When Prime Minister David Cameron promised the British people a say on whether the United Kingdom should leave or remain in the EU in January 2013, he did so for more cynical reasons. He hoped it would effectively kill the surging threat on his party’s right flank from the nationalist U.K. Independence Party and silence the many Euroskeptics in his own Conservative Party. He also wanted to put the Labour Party on the defensive by showcasing his own party’s support for more direct democracy.

Today, Cameron has gotten himself into a much bigger mess than he ever bargained for. The risk of an actual “Brexit,” or a British exit from the EU, is all too real, and the consequences for the Conservative Party are likely to be dire, even in the case of a close vote in favor of remaining in the EU.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.