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ECPR Journals Virtual Special Issue

The Place of Truthfulness in Brexit Politics Post-Referendum: Democratic Representation or Discursive Manipulation?

Political Theory
Sandra Kröger
University of Exeter
Sandra Kröger
University of Exeter
Sten Hansson
University of Tartu

There has been much talk of how not accepting the result of the British EU membership referendum of 23 June 2016 would somehow constitute a ‘coup’ against democracy. From this perspective, opposing Brexit means not respecting the ‘will of the people’, and anything but leaving would be deeply undemocratic, further increasing anti-establishment resentment. Such statements suggest that as long as the UK does leave the EU, no matter under which terms, democracy would not be harmed and the ‘will of the people’ would be respected. This contribution could not disagree more.

There have been some contributions on the poor democratic legitimacy of the process leading to the referendum (Bellamy 2018; Kröger 2018), on how the conceptualisation of a ‘will of the people’ is problematic to begin with (Weale 2018), and on how Parliament and PMs did not gain a pre-eminent place in collective decision-making and were not performing well as regards accountability and on representative judgement after the vote (Chalmers 2017). This contribution adds to the debate on how democracy has been compromised by Brexit politics by focusing on yet a different aspect: the ways in which democratic representation was harmed by a lack of truthfulness in the post-referendum process.

First, we spell out why democratic representation requires truthfulness, with truthfulness relying on accuracy (the information is not false or misleading) and sincerity (the elected representative is honest and does not deceive). If elected representatives do not give accurate information, citizens cannot count on the policies they are proposing actually being in citizens’ interest. And if elected representatives are not sincere, citizens do not know whether the former will actually do what they said/say they will do. Both will make it harder for citizens to know which representative best aligns with their interest and so make democratic representation problematic. Second, as an empirical contribution, we analyse a set of statements made by Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet post-referendum to identify particular discursive strategies that illustrate the lack of truthfulness. Following the tradition of discourse-historical studies (e.g., Hansson 2015), we pinpoint the different ways in which the ministers tried to downplay (or divert public attention away from) the contentiousness and (potential) negative consequences of their Brexit policy. Concluding, we discuss some consequences of the absence of truthfulness in Brexit politics, namely that accountability becomes problematic as does the ability to compromise.
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