In ‘The Economics of Happiness’, the Swiss professor Bruno S Frey argues that over 600 referenda have contributed to the happiness of his fellow citizens. The Swiss can trigger an optional referendum if 50,000 people or eight of its 26 cantons have petitioned to do so within 100 days. A mandatory vote can be triggered by ‘popular initiative’: 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months. If the government is at issue with the the initiative, it can table a counterproposal – which is most often preferred by voters to the original proposal. What, specifically, has the “statistically significant, robust and sizeable effect on happiness”, measured by Frey? “The institutionalised right of individual political participation.”
The narrowness of the victory is already causing unhappiness for the UK. Millions of signatories have signed a petition for a second vote – at the time of sending a fifth of the number that voted Leave. Over the weekend, a thousand signatures were being added each minute. Interestingly, the petition was set up by a Leave campaigner: a student and activist for the English Democrats.
The post-Brexit regret expressed over the weekend by Leavers reflects the confusing political grammar of the referendum. A Constitution Unit study of over 250 European referendums finds that the change option won 69 per cent of them. Only Malta has voted against the stated will of the premier, in 2011. However, the British electorate were called upon by their Prime Minister to defy his wishes: a Greek tragedy of a democratic choice. It’s difficult to describe a vote to remain as a vote for the status quo: when the European Union is increasingly a “crisis-management organisation” making up the rules as it goes along.
By contrast to the Swiss, British voters are feeling unhappy about our democracy because we don’t do it very often, and many of us are not convinced it works. There was a distinct difference in Lord Ashcroft’s exit polls between the two camps on the significance of the decision being made during the referendum. Three quarters of Remainers thought the referendum could have disastrous consequences for the UK. 69% of Leavers thought the decision “might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way”.
Think tanks have reason to worry about Britain after Brexit. Michael Gove famously used a Sky interview to proclaim “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”. The IFS touched a nerve – and was savaged by politicians and in the press – when it suggested leaving the EU would lead to more austerity.
Leadership evaporated in politics this weekend. The phrase ‘post-truth politics’ is doing the rounds with respect to potential Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It was coined by David Roberts to describe “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation)”. This is the case when immigration dominates debate over a referendum where immigration policy is not on the cards: not to speak of the slogan, “We send the EU £350 million a week.”
A former Brussels correspondent for the Times describes how as a journalist, Boris Johnson sold stories and out-competed rival correspondents by sketching a salacious caricature of the EU machine with little factual basis – plans to “ban Britain’s favorite potato chips, standardize condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos-filled headquarters”. It became impossible to sell any other EU stories to editors, and it has clearly become difficult to sell any other view to the British public.
David Roberts cites a study by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, which asserts that the reinforcement of group identities tends to trump thinking in the voting booth: or in starker terms, voters “do not reason very much or very often…what they do is rationalize.” Learning by experience is rare for voters because:
“the discomfort of maladjustment never comes, either because they never emerge from the world of political thought and emotion into the world of practical action, or because the concrete consequences of their misperceptions are too indirect for them to apprehend.”
Fears around immigration helped spur a 72% turnout on a referendum on membership of the EU. But we’ll never have a referendum on taking action against climate change, never mind garner public support for more timely action. Why? Climate change is a ‘multivalent’ issue, writes George Marshall: “it lends itself to multiple interpretations of causality, timing, and impact. This leaves it extremely vulnerable to our innate disposition to select or adapt information so that it confirms our preexisting assumptions.” There’s not a single course of action that suggests itself to a referendum choice – and the moment Antarctic sea ice extends rather than retracts a chorus of voices challenge the nearly unanimous scientific consensus that human activity is permanently changing the climate. But after weeks of negotiation, 185 countries made commitments to reducing carbon emissions in Paris last December. We are making halting progress against this existential threat to humanity – institutions are adapting to the scale of the problem, and politicians are actually leading.
Politicians taking up against policy professionals does make the public policy enterprise look impossible in the sombre light of Brexit. However, democracy is not the problem and those who construct, evaluate and implement policy should resist defensiveness if they feel attacked. The charity sector has done incredibly badly from retreating to the sidelines after the Kids Company and other scandals soured relations with politicians, the Lobbying Act put a freeze on activism, and the press went on the offensive in May.
Instead, we need to think very carefully about what policy can offer democracy today. Where can British citizens have more experiences of constructive participation? Bruno Frey argues that there is “statistically significant positive effect of decentralisation on subjective well-being.” But the devolution process so far has been a secretive process of internal bargaining framed by unspoken rules in which only the best-organised cities have won concessions from officials at the Treasury. How can British citizens have better deliberations over the issues that affect their lives? Whitehall is everywhere elaborating ‘choice architectures’, and our Behavioural Insights are exported across the world. On Thursday, we offered voters a binary choice of two futures that were unpalatable to two opposed halves of the county. We have better ideas, better institutional designs, and better democratic heritage than this.