Brexit and the choice between Parliaments or Populism with referenda

Interview with Thomas Colignatus

About Thomas Colignatus

Thomas Colignatus is the science name of Thomas Cool, an econometrician (Groningen 1982) and teacher of mathematics (Leiden 2008), Scheveningen, Holland. His papers on economics are at MPRA and RePEc and papers on mathematics education research are at Zenodo.

I have been in contact with Thomas Colignatus,1 since 2011.2 He is an econometrician, teacher of mathematics, and researcher of mathematics education. My impression of what I have seen of his work is that of an inquisitive and original thinker. The kind of person who can exercise common sense yet still think ‘outside the box’ and use a sound basis in science. That is the sort of approach we need more of. Sensible arguments to diffuse the polarisation of public opinion and to improve the political process.

I was thus intrigued to read his recent contribution on the topic of Brexit.3 In that article Thomas suggests that there is a key problem with the Brexit referendum. The question put for voting was overly simplistic as it presented a binary that failed to capture the complexity of the issue. But, above all, the underlying political science did not make the crucial distinction that he highlights between voting and deciding. For example, the incumbent government’s eagerness to proceed with a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ is but their own interpretation of the result, not what was actually voted for.

In fact, there is no one true meaning of the referendum’s result, in the sense of a decision that encompasses all facets of the task at hand. The idea that “Brexit means Brexit” is meaningless. The result of the vote only stands for whatever the government wants it to be. A sort of “garbage in, garbage out”, in that imprecise input produces an equally vague output.

Therein lies a fundamental risk of referenda. They conflate popular vote on an assumed binary with the notion of a participatory variant of democracy. A referendum does not grant citizens the power to engage in the day-to-day processes that form the state of affairs in which decisions are to take place. At its best, a referendum offers the impression of participation. It is why it can be used by a government to either absolve itself of any responsibility or to provide some superficial legitimacy to whatever it wants to make from it.

These thoughts granted, I wanted to have Thomas’ views on the matter and on tangential themes. So I sent him a series of questions. What follows is the interview, divided into one section per topic.

1. Voting theory and referenda

PROT. Do you think that the Brexit referendum should never have happened and that the UK parliament should deal with the issue instead? Now that Brexit negotiations are underway, is there something that can be done to rectify the previous errors?

THOMAS. The referendum should never have happened, indeed. The UK parliament should have handled EU relations without a plebiscite. Actually, Jolyon Maugham QC had a case in court to make sure that Parliament eventually dealt with the case anyhow. Parliament eventually became active and gave permission to Prime Minister May to invoke Article 50. However, at that stage in time it seems that the members of the House were mainly confused. They seem to regard the Brexit outcome as “the will of the people”, and then forget about the underlying “garbage in, garbage out” situation.

The referendum question might be said to read “Leave, at all cost, whatever it may mean” versus “Remain, otherwise”, but it is doubtful that voters really read it like this. Most likely each voter had his or her own assumptions and conditional expectations, which makes for a quite confused situation.

There is some dim light for representative democracy. The elections of June 8 2017 provide an opportunity for the UK electorate to select a House of Commons that either supports Theresa May’s policy on a hard Brexit or not. These elections would thus resolve the legitimacy of it all. The candidates for the seats in the House can clarify their position, and voters can make an informed decision. Provided that each UK voting district has candidates that present all the options.

But yet again the electorate is quite confused about the underlying “garbage in, garbage out” situation. Voters are seduced into thinking that Brexit is inevitable and that there is no way back. The proper question on the EU is now mixed with another question of party loyalty. Consider a Conservative candidate who only wants a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all: would he or she be willing to oppose the party leader Theresa May and be called a renegade, or will he or she choose for party loyalty and support a hard Brexit? The elections of June 8 are less about EU policy and more about loyalty and losing face.

There is a theoretical case for referenda for natural binaries, in which a coin can only fall two ways and not stand on its side. It is risky to claim that some particular issue has this feature of being a binary. The risk is that you overlook complexities and voting cycles in the hiding. The relevant question is why one would want a referendum. It puts voters in a box in which they cannot bargain. Instead, decisions better be supported by bargaining about the complexities involved. For bargaining we have a government supported by parliament. The major problem in the UK is that its House of Commons is elected by district voting. Full democracy requires proportional representation as in Holland. So the UK better resolves this key problem before doing something else. The UK elections of June 8 highlight the negative aspects of district voting.4

2. Referenda and populism

PROT. As you pointed out in your article, science was disregarded. The insights of mathematics were ignored so that a certain agenda could be implemented. Furthermore, the fact that said agenda now has the veneer of ‘popular legitimacy’, makes it very difficult to oppose. By criticising Brexit we run the risk of being misunderstood as opponents of democracy, as the ‘technocrats’ or the ‘elites’ who have no regard for the much-touted will of the people (and what exactly is the will of the people when “Brexit means Brexit”?).

Seeing as “populism” is the buzzword of current political parlance, can we then think of populism as the phenomenon by which public opinion is based on widespread sentiment without reference to the relevant corpus of scientific work? Is populism the prioritisation of views (and occasionally misconceptions) held by many over issues that do actually require a certain degree of expertise? If so, should not scientists actively participate in the public debate, engaging with the people by means of weblogs, social media, or whatever works for them?

THOMAS. Just to be sure: perhaps the insights of some mathematicians were not ignored, but I warn about misconceptions amongst mathematicians, so perhaps the creators of the referendum question were listening to the wrong advisors. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards those guards? Governments require some quality control about the advice that they use.

I have not studied populism but have studied ways how policy making can benefit from science, and how errors in policy making can arise when science is neglected. It might be the mirror image.

Populism seems to me to be the result of a cocktail of various issues like unemployment, poverty, migration, health, environment, and the inability of governments to find answers, so that populist leaders get the opportunity to rouse support with easy slogans. François Hollande is a case in point. As a social democrat he had every desire to resolve the major issues of our day. But he lacked the ideas and policy instruments. In a way, Hollande exposed himself as a populist too, but with less exaggerated language. Thus the problems remained, which gave Marine Le Pen an opportunity to claim that she has the solution—which she hasn’t either.

I don’t think that we can make progress by studying populism. The real problem is to find policies that work. If you get stuck, call in the help of science, instead of another round of voting. We need science, but we must also make sure that it is proper science indeed and finds support in democracy. Science has fled into the academia and ivory tower, and into the safety of its own systems of quality control. Scientists who are absorbed into government agencies suddenly lose their scientific freedom and are reduced to civil servants who must be silent and serve their political masters even when it means deceiving the public. Thus the solution is to create intermediate bodies, in which scientists participate in the policy making process but still retain their scientific code of ethics and implied intellectual independence. A role for science can be at any policy level or agency, and also in commercial companies.

For economics, my suggestion is that each nation adopts an Economic Supreme Court. I suppose one can think about such schemes also for e.g. health and environment, yet, political economy is the science of the management of the state, and it would have priority to create an Economic Supreme Court. Other scientific issues can already be channeled via this ESC.5

3. Referenda and European integration

PROT. European integration is ongoing. It is a process. Every new piece of legislation, every institutional arrangement, every decision that involves the EU, becomes part of the Community acquis or, more broadly, establishes a precedent for future decisions. Still, the major changes in the process occur only periodically by means of amendments to the Treaties. Such shifts come in the form of a new Treaty which rewrites parts of the existing primary law. And so, when we contemplate the various options for the reform of the EU we eventually reach the point of recognising the constraints to concerted action and the concomitant need for Treaty change. What is of concern with such inter-state agreements is that (i) they require unanimity among the Member States, and (ii) they can be put to popular vote.

What can voting theory or mathematics in general tell us about such phenomena? Is there a more reliable formula of voting/deciding over those issues? Can there be a European interest, the well-meant good of the system at-large, that is decoupled from—or independent of—the conflicting agendas of national governments?

THOMAS. Oh my. I warn for misconceptions in mathematics that cause cynicism about democracy. Thus I don’t point to the authority of mathematics but invite others to make sure that the math is right. Let it first be clear that my distinction between voting results and deciding concerns a technical point with regard to Arrow’s impossibility theorem. There is a distinction between a voting field of various voting outcomes, and a decision that is represented by a collective utility function. It should not be read as a distinction between voting for populists and decisions for an elite (here is a more technical discussion).

It remains true that the best system is when the people vote and the outcome is reflected proportionally in parliament. Thus in this other sense there is a distinction between electorate and the chosen members of parliament who make the final decisions. Populism with direct choices by the people is a blueprint for chaos. Instead, parliamentary democracy can work well: there is political talent anywhere and with free entry people have ample choices for parliament.

Now on your question, I have studied voting theory mostly within the context of an established constitution, and only a few cases where a group takes a vote about their constitution—which is a bit like Von Munchhausen lifting himself by his hair (see chapter 9.2 of my Voting Theory for Democracy). Your question also concerns the European process which is a unique historical phenomenon of amazing complexity, if not amazing chaos. So your issue really is complex.

To be clear: there is no such “deus ex machina” formula of voting/deciding on such issues, and there is no measure for “EU interest” other than via the negotiations between the governments and the existing procedures for parliamentary control. On this question of yours, I can only offer some common sense reply.

The EU now has this White Paper with five scenarios on the EU future. Apparently they want that the EU population makes a choice here.6 If the EU would want to have an international referendum on a EU constitution with “We the people …”, say with abolishing boundaries and forming a United States of Europe, then it is up to the EU and member states what they would want to accept.

I can only clarify that if you require a 2/3 majority of a turnout of at least 3/4, then you have made sure that at least 1/2 of the electorate would support it. If you have less stringent requirements, then you allow a minority to decide. You would also require at least 50% for each member state, to prevent that pro-EU countries impose themselves upon the sceptical ones.

For example, Donald Trump had 46% of the vote with a turnout of 60%, which means that his support is only 28% of the electorate. In this case you need a new president, so this is different. Yet it is better to have a premier selected by parliament, with a coalition government that has at least 50% support.

An EU referendum on a treaty is not required. Parliaments already support their governments on their negotiations. If a treaty infringes upon a national constitution, then there are national rules about changing the constitution. For example in Holland it requires new national elections and then the new parliament must adopt the new constitution too. The referendum on the EU Constitution was a mistake, and we should have had new national elections. Eventually we had, and the Dutch parliament apparently accepted the Lisbon treaty.

I am in favour of the unanimity rule, or the veto power of EU member states. It warrants that member states agree with what is happening. You shouldn’t want to force people. In voting theory this is the Pareto rule. You focus on improvements that are beneficial for everyone. For the EU there are ample ways for such Pareto improvements. With bargaining, countries can be compensated if needed. If there is a choice on which Pareto improvement to take, then you might use majority voting as a tie breaking rule. But you should not use majority rule to take away rights from minorities for the benefit of majorities.

The need for common sense and genuine science

I much appreciate Thomas’ insights, from the constraints of the UK electoral system, to the path dependencies of the Brexit referendum, the need for genuine scientific input in policy-making, and the propriety of unanimity voting on matters of EU Treaty change. Indeed, given the method by which votes are counted, a minority can impose its will on the majority. That is undesirable, especially on such overarching, multi-faceted themes as EU membership or EU integration.

Modern democracy differs substantially from the model of Ancient Athens in that (a) it is representative, (b) is founded on a codified corpus of primary law, and (c) has the capacity to blend popular opinion with technical expertise. Not everything is subject to vote, such as human rights being inalienable. That is a matter of principle. Yet there are cases where even matters of opinion are ill suited for popular vote. Referenda tend to reduce a complex issue into a yes-no choice. They leave no room for eclecticism, for picking the appropriate elements and discarding the ones that are not needed. It is either all or nothing. Simplistic decision making, whatever its form, has a negative effect on the overall quality of political life. It engenders dogmatism, polarises public opinion. The synthesis of diverse views becomes ever more difficult, if not impossible. That ultimately damages pluralism, making democracy less representative.

Indicative of this tendency to over-simplify is the widespread use of the term “populism” as a catch-all label that can describe every political movement from the far left to the far right. Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party were (are?) populists. Marine Le Pen and her nationalist Front National are treated as populists. Two fundamentally different world views talked about in more-or-less the same terms. Some are a bit more careful, so they use phrases such as “right wing populist”. Still, the further qualification does not say much about the base notion.

Science must inform decision making. That will improve the quality of our politics. The use of common sense can also help us escape some false dichotomies or dilemmas. The eventuality of Brexit is upon us. It could have been otherwise, were it for the appropriate method of voting and deciding.

In conclusion, I wish to thank Thomas Colignatus for his input on such pertinent issues and for sharing his thoughts with me.

  1. The name Colignatus is the name that Thomas Cool uses for his scientific works. ^

  2. In 2011 I published a total of three blog posts with input from Thomas Colignatus. As these were produced at a time when I was running my blog on another platform, there are a few things that do not work properly, such as links and inline images. Still, the actual words remain in tact. These are the articles: (1) A Plan for Europe – Interview with Thomas Colignatus part 1, part 2, (2) Chaos in Europe, the G20 in Cannes and the need for constitutional changes – Interview with Thomas Colignatus link here^

  3. Colignatus (2017), ‘Voting theory and the Brexit referendum question’, RES Newsletter issue no. 177, April 2017, pp.14-15, http://www.res.org.uk/SpringboardWebApp/userfiles/res/file/newsletters/Apr17.pdf ^

  4. Colignatus, Thomas (2010): Single vote multiple seats elections. Didactics of district versus proportional representation, using the examples of the United Kingdom and The Netherlands. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/22782/ ^

  5. Colignatus (2014), ‘An Economic Supreme Court’, RES Newsletter issue no. 167, October 2014, pp.20-21, http://www.res.org.uk/view/art7Oct14Features.html ^

  6. The Commission’s White Paper is available here. For analysis and opinion (from Prot) see Thoughts on the White Paper about the future of Europe. Published on March 9, 2017. Also read the relevant analysis of the first reflection paper: Thoughts on the European Pillar of Social Rights. Published on April 29, 2017. ^

Protesilaos profile photo

Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
Full profile