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Brexit: Should ‘ordinary people’ be taking a decision as big as this?

By Abigail McDougall

Between last night and this morning an “I’m in for Britain” poster popped up in the window of my upper-middle-class neighbours. This display of support for Remain is rather gutsy for Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where Leave posters are in many windows and I’ve had Leave propaganda raining through my mailbox for weeks. It seems like Remain assumed that common sense would prevail and that they could sit back and have a cuppa, while Leave are pouring everything they’ve got into convincing the 10% of undecided voters. Maybe my neighbours have realised that a Leave victory is a real possibility.

On Thursday Britain will vote on whether or not to leave the EU, a vote that will have major consequences for Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world too.

Campaigning on both sides has been hysterical and sensationalist, flinging around “the facts” on immigration, jobs, and the amount of money lost and gained from membership. These facts are continuously debunked and challenged, further undermining the authority of politicians and experts who are already mistrusted by many people. This leaves people to make up their minds on the basis of moral arguments, which in this case are complicated, or by “gut feel” based on their own experiences and memories, and affect, which both sides are trying to manipulate.

Pro-EU supporters hold placards and banners during a "Yes to Europe" rally in London's Trafalgar square, ahead of Thursday's EU referendum, in central London on June 21, 2016. (AFP)
Pro-EU supporters hold placards and banners during a “Yes to Europe” rally in London’s Trafalgar square, ahead of Thursday’s EU referendum, in central London on June 21, 2016. (AFP)

The referendum raises questions about democracy: should “ordinary people” without training in economics, history, and multilateral institutions be taking a decision as big as this, which will have consequences for generations? David Mitchell, following Richard Dawkins, has argued that this should be left up to elected leaders with the education and expertise to decide. This implies a particular model of democracy in which ordinary people do not make decisions directly, and their power is handed to a small group of people who are trusted to know what they are doing. The role of the media is precisely to bind together this paradox of representative democracy: the media should monitor what those in charge are up to and keep them accountable to the public, and it should inform that public so that it can better participate in the affairs of the state.

The UK media has done an OK job of the first part: they report every claim and counter-claim of all the major Brexit roleplayers, and the debates are all over the radio and presumably the TV (I don’t have a TV so I can’t say for sure). Competing claims have become wilder and wilder, to the point that the chairman of the treasury committee in parliament, after hearing evidence from Leave, said that “Both sides in the referendum campaign have traded in outrageous claims and unsubstantiated assertions, masquerading as facts”. The news media report these battles in an exhaustingly amplified cycle of he-said-she-said. Anyone who wants to know what David Cameron or Nigel Farage or Jeremy Corbyn has to say about Brexit at any given moment can easily do so. These news stories are cobbled together responses to responses to original statements that have been blown so out of proportion that the actual issue is obscured from sight.

Less prevalent is reporting which equips people to appropriate the facts and claims, interpret them, distinguish between the different kinds of arguments being hurled at them, and make some sense of it all. The UK is information rich – access to the internet and to news and information is not a question in the same way it is in South Africa or other developing country contexts. But whether or not that information becomes knowledge that citizens can use – what happens in the process of packaging and massaging it – is less clear. And in a moment like this where a decision with intergenerational implications and global ripple effects is being taken in a referendum, the role of the media in helping people to decide well is crucial.

This is a rare and historic moment of direct democracy, where people will make up their minds with more information available to them than ever before. Held up like a prism on a pendulum, Brexit illustrates the many-faceted interactions between political systems, people, and the media. Brexit offers an opportunity to question how the facets touch sides and what is at stake in the way they connect, both in the UK and at home.

Abigail McDougall is currently studying a masters in creative and media enterprise at the University of Warwick in England. She is a 2013 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. Her background is in journalism, politics, sustainable development and she is interested in all things media.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Geoff Coles Geoff Coles 22 June 2016

    My greater family in the UK are all for Brexit….. it’s their view, wanting sovereignty back and their own Laws. Emotion plays a great part too… and why not!
    I object to her comment on ‘ordinary people’!

  2. Wisdom of the South Wisdom of the South 22 June 2016

    The article implies that career politicians are better equipped to make a decision like that. That is wrong, they follow the party leadership, vote in blocks, earn fat salaries that might be effected by the decision. In the UK one would expect some morals left with politicians, in South Africa they are selling their soul. It is just fine to let the people make the decisions, it is called democracy and is on the decline.Time to win it back.

  3. Wisdom of the South Wisdom of the South 22 June 2016

    Just a thought: Should somebody write an article about the art of persuasion of voters and base that entirely on the printed matter and the Internet, whereas most voters probably rely on the telly. An instrument the writer does not possess.

  4. Sibusiso Sibusiso 22 June 2016

    When the politicians pose as experts as to the short, medium and long-term economic outcomes of Brexit, then you know it is bad. It is better to vote out those politicians and bring in accountable Europeans.

  5. Jaap Folmer Jaap Folmer 23 June 2016

    No one in Europe has been bombarded with anti-European propaganda more that the Brits in the last two decades. The purpose of that was to destroy the political structures of the EU and turn it into a mere free trade zone subservient to the US and its crowbar the UK. Bush/Blair made little secret of this. They lauded Poland ad the other Eastern members as the ‘New Europe’ and tried to play them against the Germans and the EU institutions. It failed. Then the financial crowd of Wall St. and London launched a war against the euro to bankrupt and break up the EU that way. It failed.

    Now the propaganda war is backfiring and the Brits may vote themselves into ‘sovereign’ Norwegian irrelevance. The US and Nato are up in arms, because they would lose any grip on the EU that way. Meanwhile the EU’s economy is growing again -in Ireland 7% growth even-, the debt problem is under control and the US is starting to realize that they may end up with a ‘Special Relationship’ with the isle of cloud cuckooland pretty soon. Even if the vote still goes for remain, Britain’s position is damaged beyond remedy. In the EU no one will still give them the time of day. Least of all the Eastern Europeans.

  6. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 23 June 2016

    It’s slightly surprising the writer doesn’t have a TV, which has been an excellent source of information on the subject. That minor point aside, however much information one is given or has the capacity to understand, it’s worth remembering there is no ‘right’ answer to Brexit-or-Not; the politicians and experts are also divided on the subject. The question like so many others is not answered by ‘expertise’. If Dawkins has missed this point, it will not be the first point he has missed with his positivist approach to life.

  7. oommike oommike 23 June 2016

    Politicians hate it then the proles show their strength. Politicians, as a class, rate somewhat lower than drug trafficers

  8. Peter Freeman Peter Freeman 23 June 2016

    And where is the article pointing out the truth that the EU is actually run by leaders that are not democratically elected? That no law is passed by elected officials, ever and that no law can be repealed by elected officials? The last state run on these lines was the Soviet Union.

  9. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 24 June 2016

    It was the politicians who put it to a referendum. Just like there was a referendum to go into the EU.

    Democracy is a government by the people, for the people and of the people. The politicians are not (despite their own beliefs) deities. If people are considered bright enough to chose their leaders, then they should be considered bright enough to know what is best for themselves

  10. CB045 CB045 25 June 2016

    Why not? If they are old enough to vote let them choose. It is their democratic right, isn’t it?

  11. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 25 June 2016

    I don’t agree that tv is an excellent source of information. it is too often a propaganda tool be it SABC or BBC. Many of my UK friends despise BBC for that reason. I am surprised by your naivety here Paul.

  12. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 27 June 2016

    Depends on the stations you watch and how critically or passively you watch them.

  13. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 29 June 2016

    Disagreed. You can “actively” watch propaganda until you are blue in the face, it is still propaganda or “massaged” information.

  14. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 29 June 2016

    emphasis on “should”

  15. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 29 June 2016

    No doubt there are many people who believe everything they hear or the last person that spoke.

  16. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 1 July 2016

    You get the government you deserve. That is what democracy is all about

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