It is obvious that the way the Brexit referendum facilitated citizen participation was incongruous with the deepest and broadest definition of citizen participation and informed judgement. What is unclear and ought to be clarified by empirical studies is the comparative quality of the IndyRef and Brexit referenda.
A peremptory study by the Electoral Reform Society has criticised “glaring democratic deficiencies” in the Brexit debate, contrasting the vibrant, grassroots participation of IndyRef with the hackneyed diktat of Brexit, raising fresh questions for scholars about what causal factors caused the differences between the two, and what corrections to process designs we can make going forward. The schematic framework and litmus test of democratic efficacy against which the qualities of the respective referenda will be assessed derives from Graham Smith’s work on democratic innovations, distinguished by its dedication to factual accuracy and its being at the cutting edge of research into ways of maximising citizen participation.
Against this standard one can test the hypothesis of the Electoral Reform Society that the IndyRef was qualitatively superior to the Brexit referendum, and argues that whilst IndyRef deepened participation in contemporary political institutions, particularly in ways concordant with Smith’s vision, Brexit was suffice only to further entrench the general alienation and malaise inspired by high British politics.
Moreover, this research points to the wider questions about how federal devolution in Britain has stoked innovations at the grassroots level which provide inroads to greater participation. It’s worth reiterating Smith’s analysis that “we are concerned with the degree to which citizen participation can be institutionalised at the level of the city, the nation or the transnational/global.” A comparative study of IndyRef and Brexit naturally raises questions about the ways in which the design of devolution in Scotland has been a boon to citizen participation, and, moreover, the ways in which the ossification of incumbent democracy in Westminster has contributed to the alienation of ordinary voices in the Brexit debate. Federal devolution may well be stoking democratic innovations; Westminster may well be the mother of democracies but the design of our parliament predates modern research on the best institutional and constitutional designs for enhancing citizen participation. We can learn more from others than they can from us now. The qualitative differences of the debates had in Holyrood, across Scotland, in Westminster and across Britain, shine a light on how different institutional configurations create different outputs and inspires us to think about the ways in which institutions can be modified to maximise citizen inputs. These are the normative aspects of the issue to which we should be devoted to studying, which is to say in this context we must consider what is the ideal standard for conducting referenda in democratic polities, lest our research be bereft of a normative framework to inform its explanatory elements, which are not, and ought not to be, divide from values and statement of what ought.
The obvious way of assessing and comparing the democratic efficacy of referenda is to analyse the extent to which they respectively left voters feeling as though they had made an informed choice and decision about their vote. Whereas referenda and public deliberation are supposed to foment understanding of different positions, and lead citizens to informed judgement, the ERS report found that “people felt consistently ill-informed” about Brexit. The ERS postulate that what was missing was “extensive public information campaigns and a vibrant deliberative debate, including the possibility of holding official Citizens’ Assemblies during the campaign.” Political institutions like Citizens’ Assemblies are bespoke designs made in mind of maximising opportunities for informed judgement. There is growing evidence they lead people to better judgement. Whereas IndyRef encouraged participation and deliberation, Brexit did not.