Can The Referendum Be Democratic?

Reflections On The Brexit Process

End date

02 March 2016


17:30 to 18:30
Leonard Wolfson Auditorium Wolfson College Linton Rd Oxford OX2 6UD

In this FLJS lecture, Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory, University of Edinburgh, discusses the circumstances surrounding the forthcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

We live in an age of direct democracy. Around the world the referendum is used more and more in processes of constitutional formation and change. This lecture will consider whether or not the referendum is an appropriate way to make such fundamental decisions, exploring the democratic strengths and weaknesses of referendum democracy.

The referendum has a bad name in political theory due to the assumption that it is always open to elite manipulation. The lecture will ask, however, whether a number of the perceived democratic failings of the referendum are in fact problems of practice rather than principle. In this context we will consider the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, which seemed to dispel some of the criticisms of direct democracy.

But what of the circumstances surrounding the forthcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union? Do these augur well for a free, fair and deliberative process? 

Stephen Tierney is Professor of Constitutional Theory in the School of Law, University of Edinburgh, Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law and ESRC Senior Research Fellow with the Centre of Constitutional Change. 

He is author of Constitutional Referendums: The Theory and Practice of Republican Deliberation (OUP 2012). He served as independent adviser to the Scottish Government on the technical aspects of the independence referendum for six months in 2012, and in 2013 was appointed constitutional adviser to the Scottish Parliament’s Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee which helped frame the process rules for that referendum.

He currently serves as Legal Adviser to the House of Lords Constitution Committee and is co-editor of the UK Constitutional Law blog.


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Wednesday, 2 March 2016 - 5:30pm to 6:30pm