In short: I have no idea.
As the conservative party conference continues it’s not clear to me that many of the decisions being made either by the Conservatives or Labour have much basis in what they consider the right thing to do to be. At this point it’s fairly clear Brexit is not going well. After many years of EU membership it’s not a trivial matter at all to extricate a nation from such an organization. But it’s not going so poorly as to put the fear of God into much of the pro-Brexit population.
As I see it, Brexit does a fairly good job of outlining the issues with both referendums and democracy.
- Referendums are really poor at making the ‘right’ decision. On such an issue the average person is awful at assessing the true impact
- Democratic institutions struggle to stand up to such impulses. Although the government would be within its power to mitigate a lot of the damage Brexit is likely to cause, electoral pressures make this highly unlikely.
- Internal power dynamics within both parties also hamstring the ability of significant factions within both which are opposed to Brexit (or became opposed as a result of the current situation.
Referendums are problematic
People are terrible at making decisions that are very long term. People are also terrible at understanding complicated geopolitical agreements. You combine the two and I’d question the ability of anyone, either pro or anti Brexit of truly independently arriving at an informed decision. Even those familiar with the situation, and making ‘educated’ decisions are having to do so with the output of discussions from experts. And many, in this day and age are rejecting expertise.
Democratic institutions are ill equipped to combat referendum outcomes, even with support from representatives
Representatives, even those who wish to do something about a referendum outcome really don’t have much in the way of tools to do so without becoming unpopular. Referendums are seen as being final and as being purely democratic. Whereas a member of government might have independent incentives, and those members can change, a vote from the people is seen to be truly independent and impartial. But for the reasons listed above this is unlikely to be the case.
Internal power dynamics further hamper lawmakers
Even within political parties the incentives are not aligned. As we are currently seeing at the Conservative party conference nobody really has a great plan, but everybody is eager to ‘win’. To ‘win’ is to have hte popular plan and to be able to win an internal political struggle in which you end up at the top: house of cards style. At this point it’s terribly unclear what the best negotiation approach would be, and the fact that it’s public nobody agrees kills the negotiating position that May has. Yet this is almost intrinsic to such a negotiation. The EU is able to easily consolidate their decision making power through a couple representatives. Their political incentives are to keep the EU together and put off some sense of toughness. But for these Tory MPs, the incentive is far more to come out on the top of the heap than to make a successful Brexit happen. Even if you don’t think Brexit is a good idea, you may perceive it to be a way to climb to the top of the heap. And as long as we have democracy, the incentives of the individuals representing the people can be at odds with the incentives that should drive decision making.