The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the failure of popular politics triggered the rise of Boris Johnson

Instead of solving intractable problems, public referendums simply exacerbate them.

Boris Johnson leaves Conservative Party headquarters after being announced as the party's leader at an event in central London on July 23. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/REX)

This week, Brexit brought down its second prime minister. Theresa May, like David Cameron before her, was unable to contain the forces released by the fateful 2016 referendum. Boris Johnson will be the next to try and will now confront the forces he helped unleash.

Many have criticized the shambles Brexit has become, but few have focused on its root cause: the mechanism of referendum voting itself.

Referendums reveal the paradoxical danger within every democracy, which is that the more directly they convey the popular will, the more self-destructive they become. Referendums give expression to the popular will by allowing voters to directly decide a proposition. Once they have been offered as a political solution, it becomes nearly impossible to criticize their use or their outcome for the simple reason that opposing the consultation of the popular will is, by definition, unpopular.

Unfortunately, referendums are most often proposed as solutions to highly controversial topics that they are unable to settle and only intensify. Even worse, they invert the accountability of representative democracy by holding voters themselves responsible for the misinformation, deception and manipulation of those elected to lead them. Instead of delivering effective policy and renewed unity, referendums leave voters confused and alienated from one another and their governments. What they reveal most clearly is that the elected representatives who authorize them would prefer not to do their jobs.

These problems have been known for millennia. Citizens of classical Athens enjoyed direct democracy, with most political (and military) questions subject to open debate and relatively direct participatory votes. Momentous and potentially destructive decisions could hinge on individual persuasion; a single excellent speech could change the fate of the polis. After Athens’s spectacular collapse, it became for Aristotle (or his students) a cautionary tale of statecraft as much as an example of political genius.

Nearly two millennia later, James Madison warned the nascent United States against the same dangers of direct democracy in the Federalist Papers. Britain’s constitutional history shows a similar aversion. Referendums were not a significant feature of British politics between the first protean parliament in 1265 and the 1970s. The Anglo-American political experiments have instead bet strongly on representative models that harness the popular will.

Recently, however, the United Kingdom has turned to referendums as its global power and self-confidence have declined. The ruin of the 20th century — two exhausting world wars and the interrelated loss of its empire — has left it with two intractable political dilemmas. First, it has yet to decide where it fits in the international community. After conceding world hegemony to the United States, it has remained adrift among the Americans, a resurgent Europe and its former colonies across the world. Second, post-imperial Britain has struggled to contain intense questions of national identity both domestically and in its former colonies.

The British government has come to believe over the past several decades that referendum votes can solve these problems. So far, they have only intensified them.

British uses of referendums have been bipartisan. The Tories, traditionally skeptical of mass politics but adept at leveraging it, first gave the mechanism life when Prime Minister Ted Heath allowed a referendum in 1973. Heath hoped to stanch a blood-soaked year of fighting in Northern Ireland with a local poll on whether it should leave the United Kingdom and rejoin its southern neighbor. Nationalists boycotted the poll, and the unionist option won in a landslide. Northern Ireland’s status remained unstable, and the institutions that ruled it were further delegitimized by the farcical exercise.

Labour, the self-styled party of the “many, not the few,” followed soon after with a 1975 vote on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Community (EC). Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had pledged to hold the vote in the previous election, and voters chose to remain in the EC by a convincing margin. But far from settling Britain’s European question (or sidestepping partisan gridlock), the referendum was only the beginning. “Europe” continued to plague sitting governments, helping end Margaret Thatcher’s career in 1990 and haunting both Labour and Tory factions through to the present.

In the late 1990s, Tony Blair’s Labour government believed referendums could also solve Britain’s intractable problems with nationalism. Blair used referendums to legitimize his strategy of devolution, which created local legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was the most radical constitutional shift since the Statute of Westminster revoked Parliament’s legislative supremacy over the Crown’s overseas Dominions in 1931, and its goal was to contain nationalist and separatist movements within the United Kingdom by redirecting their energy toward new devolved institutions.

It has done the opposite. Devolved governments have served in part as vehicles for intensifying national identity and have emboldened nationalists to call for further referendums on secession from the U.K. Nationalism, even the secessionist kind, has not been this popular in a century.

Today, the United Kingdom’s competing nationalisms (including the English variety) have also become inextricably entangled with the European question. English and Ulster Unionist (Northern Irish) nationalists have tended to favor leaving the European Union, believing that this will enable a return to former glory or at least remove an imagined constraint on British political genius. Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalists, meanwhile, have largely preferred to remain within the E.U., which provides them with legitimizing institutions and links to the world that bypass London.

The current Brexit crisis began nearly 10 years ago, when newly elected Tory Prime Minister David Cameron decided to double down on the referendum bets of the past half-century. His gambits addressed the same familiar dilemmas. By calling referendums on their pet issues, he planned to neutralize the most vocal and uncooperative factions in British politics: Scottish nationalists and the anti-European wing of his own party. Cameron believed that his side would win both votes handily, and that he would be free to get on with his real agenda.

Like his predecessors, he was wrong. Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014, but by a shockingly slim margin that has left the question of Scottish independence very much alive. Cameron lost the second referendum, and his job, when Britain voted to leave the E.U. in 2016 despite his campaigning to remain.

Brexit, unleashed by the misguided decision to hold a referendum, will not be fixed by holding new ones. But the notion will not die. The Liberal Democrats and several smaller parties advocate a second Brexit referendum. Labour offers a confirmatory referendum on whatever Brexit deal is agreed, as did May before she resigned as prime minister. Nicola Sturgeon recently announced that her Scottish National Party will seek a second Scottish independence referendum in 2020.

The reason referendums remain prominent — in defiance of the evidence that they fail — is that they are not being called in good democratic faith. The elected officials who authorize them are not magnanimously granting the people power to settle thorny problems that politicians cannot solve. Rather, they are callously transferring the work and the responsibility of dealing with these problems back to the people who elected them.

Small wonder that none of the factions calling for further Brexit referendums can say, when pressed, whether future results should be respected if they stubbornly violate expectations again. No future referendum will fill the growing void of legitimacy plaguing British politics. If held, they will once again merely highlight the division of the public and the absence of anyone willing to lead it. This absence has been starkly evident this summer as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and a host of Tory leadership candidates stubbornly refused to give their judgment on a plan for Brexit while May’s floundered.

Instead, they have asserted, again, a desire to be given the people’s judgment, and in so doing have “betrayed, instead of served” the people they represent, as Edmund Burke decried in 1774. While Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexit hard-liners have ruled out holding further votes, this is only because the first referendum they unleashed has worked to their advantage. Whether they realize it or not, they have sown the wind, and shall reap the whirlwind.