Intoxicated and Irresponsible Politicians: A Brief Reflection on the EU Referendum

By Paul Stoneman

Remarking on the British political tradition, A. H. Birch outlined its ability to protect civil liberties, satisfy ideas about justice and fair play and, above all else, ensure political stability. [1] In doing so, political elites balance effective decision-making alongside a periodical assessment of public opinion; in short, responsible government tempered by representative government.

The British political tradition thus requires politicians to possess certain virtues of character. In balancing responsible and representative decision-making, a certain level of objectivity is required. ‘Daily and hourly’, Weber notes, ‘…the politician has to overcome…a quite vulgar vanity’, a type of vanity where political power ‘becomes purely personal self-intoxication’.[2] When this is the case, the ‘populist’ representative elements of democratic governance begin to crowd out the responsible elements.

The recent EU Referendum in the UK testifies to a self-intoxication amongst political leaders that has led to irresponsible government. Ostensibly a highly democratic process to ensure greater representativeness, this ‘democratic’ mechanism in both its inception and its implementation neither fulfils the demands of representative or responsible government.

Its inception is best explained in terms of political strategy rather than democratic principles. The EU issue previously split the Conservative Party under Heath, Thatcher, Major, and Hague. Coupled with the recent electoral threat of UKIP, David Cameron thus decided it was time to end this long-standing rift between the pro- and anti-EU elements of the party for once and for all by asking the British public to settle the debate for them.

Intoxicated with a desire to ensure future Conservative Party rule, then, complex constitutional issues of governance were presented to an electorate as a binary choice. ‘Elevating internal party rows to a national plebiscite is not good enough’, argues Nick Clegg, ‘especially since we had already enshrined into law in 2011 a referendum trigger to ratify future EU Treaties.’[3] Thus prior to the referendum, the UK was in a position where the vast majority of elected representatives assumed a ‘responsible’ position of maintaining EU membership, whilst safe-guarding the demands of representation through blocking any future treatise changes until the public, via a referendum, had approved them.

A referendum, nonetheless, directly places power into the hands of the electorate. But the outcome of such a democratic process is not legitimised purely because such a direct voting mechanism was used. Take the 1979 referendum on devolution to Scotland, for example. The result was markedly similar to the recent EU referendum – a split of 51.62% (for devolution) versus 48.38% (against devolution). But on a turnout of 64%, devolution failed since less than a third of the Scottish electorate approved the Act – the referendum required that at least 40% of the total registered electorate approved.

One of the most perverse aspects of the EU referendum was the absence of thresholds, both in terms of turnout and in terms of the size of the winning majority. Constitutions are often designed to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’ to ensure that policy outcomes are adequately legitimised. Currently, 1.9% of the voting electorate swung the decision in favour of Brexit. On a turnout of 72%, this equates to just over 1% of the total electorate deciding the fate of the biggest constitutional change to UK governance we have seen for hundreds of years.

Socially sorted and politically divided, the fallout from this referendum result will deepen divisions within British society. Potentially greater unity within the Conservative Party is no saving grace, whatever your political allegiance. It would be irresponsible to think otherwise.



[1] Birch, A.H. (1964) Representative and Responsible Government: An Essay on the British Constitution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1964

[2] Weber, M., (1958). ‘Politics as a Vocation’. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77-128. Ed. and trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Financial Times, “Brexit: Cameron and Osborne are to blame for this sorry pass”, June 24, 2016.



Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.