Let the People Decide! Assessing the Democratic Legitimacy of the Brexit Referendum


  • Jacob Rozenburg




Brexit, democratic legitimacy, referendum, redemptive politics, pragmatic politics, populism


While the decision to organise a Brexit has been the subject of seemingly endless debate, the legitimacy of this decision is generally accepted by those on both sides of the fence. The notion that a Brexit must happen, whatever the costs, as “the people have spoken”, has cemented itself in the public debate as some form of objective truth. However, in order to safeguard British democracy, it is in fact necessary to take a more critical approach to this perceived “legitimacy”. In order to provide such an approach, this paper challenges the Brexit’s democratic legitimacy on two levels. First, using Canovan’s “redemptive” and “pragmatic” faces of democracy, it argues that the “will of the people” has been unable to legitimise the decision to leave the EU. Second, focusing in on the conduct of the referendum, it argues that due to procedural errors, the referendum has additionally been unable to translate “the will of the people” in the first place. By taking this two-step approach to the Brexit’s legitimacy question, this paper exposes the general fragile nature of referenda and highlights how the Brexit referendum has failed to communicate the “will of the people” and subsequently strengthen the UK’s democratic process.


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