Even if people don't like the result, it's important that they believe the end result was fair.

Prof Stephen Tierney



Key to referendum's credibility is the legitimacy of the event itself

Constitutional expert's view on the Brexit debate
07 March 2016

The key to the credibility of the outcome of Britain’s 13th referendum on June 23 will depend on the legitimacy of the referendum as an event, according to Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory, University of Edinburgh.

Giving the FLJS Hilary term lecture in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College last week, Prof Tierney said that the most important issue for most will be that the process is seen to be fair. ‘It’s as important that the losers, as well as the winners, agree with the fairness of the result, if not with the result itself’, he said.

Prof Tierney described the wave of referenda that has swept over the globe in recent years and distinguished four principal types of referenda: those used at the founding of new states (such as the in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR); the creation and amendment of new constitutions, as in Iraq, 2005, and Egypt in 2011; sub-state autonomy, such as the Scottish Referendum; and accession and integration treaty-making in the European Union. And now, possibly, a fifth – exit of the European Union.

Prof Tierney then outlined the three main objections to referendum democracy, namely the elite syndrome, under which organizers can (potentially) manipulate and control; the deliberation deficit, wherein referenda exist to reinforce pre-formed opinions rather than foster meaningful deliberation and, thirdly, the majoritarian danger, in which the end result merely consolidates majoritarian decision-making, at the expense of minority and individual interests.

A particularly interesting point was one which has probably passed most of the UK population by – the framing of the Brexit question itself.

When the referendum was first mooted, the question UK citizens would be asked was: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’ The question to be asked now is ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
- Remain a member of the European Union
- Leave the European Union.’

The difference, deemed by the Electoral Commission to be more neutral than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, perhaps dilutes the possibility of electoral control (by the elite?) and opens up the opportunity for more deliberation and debate. Only time will tell.

A podcast of this lecture is now available.