Brexit was always destined to be a shambles.
That said, I do think Brexit is useful for illustrating the pitfalls of this sort of referendum, something I’ve taken to calling “The 50% Problem”.
To see where this problem arises from, let’s take a look at the text of several political referendums:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? – 2016 UK Brexit Referendum
Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995? – 1995 Québec Independence Referendum
Should Scotland be an independent country? – 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum
Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic? – 2017 Catalonia Independence Referendum, declared illegal by Spain.
What do all of these questions have in common?
Simple: the outcome is much vaguer than the status quo.
During the Brexit campaign, the Leave side promised people everything but the moon. During the run-up to Québec’s last independence referendum, there were promises from the sovereignist camp that Québec would be able to retain the Canadian dollar, join NAFTA without a problem, or perhaps even remain in Canada with more autonomy. In Scotland, leave campaigners promised that Scotland would be able to quickly join the EU (which in a pre-Brexit world, Spain seemed likely to veto). The proponents of the Catalonian referendum pretended Spain would take it at all seriously.
The problem with all of these referendums and their vague questions is that everyone ends up with a slightly different idea of what success will entail. While failure leads to the status quo, success could mean anything from (to use Brexit as an example) £350m/week for the NIH to Britain becoming a hermit kingdom with little external trade.
Some of this comes from assorted demagogues promising more than they can deliver. The rest of it comes from general disagreement among members of any coalition about what exactly their best-case outcome is.
Crucially, this means that getting 50% of the population to agree to a referendum does not guarantee that 50% of the population agrees on what happens next. In fact, getting barely 50% of people to agree practically guarantees that no one will agree on what happens next.
Take Brexit, the only one of the referendums I listed above that actually led to anything. While 51.9% of the UK agreed to Brexit, there is not a majority for any single actual Brexit proposal. This means that it is literally impossible to find a Brexit proposal that polls well. Anything that gets proposed is guaranteed to be opposed by all the Remainers, plus whatever percentage of the Brexiteers don’t agree with that specific form of Brexit. With only 52% of the population backing Leave, the defection of even 4% of the Brexit coalition is enough to make a proposal opposed by the majority of the citizenry of the UK.
This leads to a classic case of circular preferences. Brexit is preferred to Remain, but Remain is preferred to any specific instance of Brexit.
For governing, this is an utter disaster. You can’t run a country when no one can agree on what needs to be done, but these circular preferences guarantee that anything that is tried is deeply unpopular. This is difficult for politicians, who don’t want to be voted out of office for picking wrong, but also don’t want to go back on the referendum.
There are two ways to avoid this failure mode of referendums.
The first is to finish all negotiations before using a referendum to ratify an agreement. This allows people to choose between two specific states of the world: the status quo and a negotiated agreement. It guarantees that whatever wins the referendum has majority support.
This is the strategy Canada took for the Charlottetown Accord (resulting in it failing at referendum without generating years of uncertainty) and the UK and Ireland took for the Good Friday Agreement (resulting in a successful referendum and an end to the Troubles).
The second means of avoiding the 50% problem is to use a higher threshold for success than 50% + 1. Requiring 60% or 66% of people to approve a referendum ensures that any specific proposal after the referendum is completed should have majority support.
This is likely how any future referendum on Québec’s independence will be decided, acknowledging the reality that many sovereignist don’t want full independence, but might vote for it as a negotiating tactic. Requiring a supermajority would prevent Québec from falling into the same pit the UK is currently in.
As the first successful major referendum in a developed country in quite some time, Brexit has demonstrated clearly the danger of referendums decided so narrowly. Hopefully other countries sit up and take notice before condemning their own nation to the sort of paralysis that has gripped Britain for the past three years.