Brexit: a victory for democracy or fact-free politics?

At 19:30 on the 22nd November 2016, de Buren held an Institute of Ideas Battle of Ideas satellite debate on the conduct and conclusion of the UK’s recent Brexit referendum.

This debate took place in English and a recording of the evening can be found further down this page.

Topic / Speakers / Location / Battle of Ideas 2016 / Audio recording

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About the debate:

The UK’s decision to leave the EU threw the British political establishment into chaos. For some, Brexit represented the British public’s demand for national sovereignty and an escape from the aloof technocracy of the European Union. For others, it was a victory for right-wing demagoguery and anti-immigrant sentiment, whipped up amongst ill-informed voters. An overwhelming number of economists, bankers, business leaders, academics and politicians from both left and right had lined up to warn of the dangers of Brexit and yet the majority of British voters opted to ignore the weight of expert opinion.

When, in the run-up to the referendum, the then justice secretary and pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove said that the British people had “had enough of experts”, his statement was widely ridiculed as promoting anti-intellectualism. Assessing the result today, many believe that voters were duped by Brexit campaigners and tabloid newspapers and that, with the amount of misinformation in the public sphere, the general public could not possibly have been expected to grasp the complexity of the arguments and what was at stake.

In relation to both the UK referendum and recent elections in Europe and North America, it has been claimed that we have entered an era of “post-truth politics”, where facts no longer matter as much as emotional appeals to peoples’ fears and prejudices. During the referendum campaign, the pro-Brexit UKIP leader Nigel Farage was, for example, condemned for conjuring up nightmare scenarios about uncontrolled immigration, while the official Leave campaign was criticised for making (and promptly refuting post-referendum) wild claims about how much money could be redirected to the UK’s National Health Service if Britain left the EU. The belief that the public was fooled has since resulted in court cases and widespread calls to either rerun the referendum or to have parliament ignore the result entirely.

Yet were the British people really tricked? Polls since the referendum have consistently shown that the largest issue among Brexit voters was not immigration or the economy but “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Furthermore, many have begun to worry about the very idea of seeking to overturn the referendum result. So, what does it imply for our democracies if we accept that the public is too ill-informed to make big political decisions? Is the vision of the public as an easily-led rabble, which is unable to weigh up arguments, not inherently patronising and elitist? And, should we defer such complex and important political decisions to experts and politicians or do such major decisions require the additional legitimation of a more direct form of participative democracy, such as that offered by referenda?

Full-length recording:


Merijn Chamon is a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University and a visiting professor at Antwerp University, where he teaches and researches EU constitutional law. He also has a keen interest in several areas of EU internal market law. Merijn is currently following the Brexit debate closely as a visiting researcher at the Durham European Law Institute (University of Durham, UK). As an occasional op-ed contributor in Flemish media, he has been arguing in favour of a sincerer and better informed public debate about EU politics and EU integration.

René Cuperus is the director of international relations and a senior research fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation (a think tank of the Dutch Labour Party, PvdA). He is a co-founder of the Scholars for European Social Democracy Forum (a European network of centre-left think tanks) and a member of the British think tank Policy Network. He writes a blog for the Social Europe Journal ( and a political column for the Dutch daily de Volkskrant. Cuperus teaches European and international politics at the universities of Leiden, Tilburg and Nijmegen.

Simon Nixon is the Wall Street Journal’s chief European commentator and writes extensively on European politics, economics and finance. He joined the WSJ in 2008 and was previously the European editor of its flagship Heard on the Street financial analysis column. Before this, he was the executive editor of, the City editor of The Week and a founder editor of Moneyweek. He has a first class degree in history from Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ella Whelan is a graduate of Sussex University & a writer and regular TV and radio commentator. She works as the assistant editor of the online magazine sp!ked as well as contributing to The Spectator and writes on a variety of topics, with a particular focus on feminism and free speech. Ella is a leading campaigner for sp!ked‘s Invoke Article 50 NOW! campaign and is also an active member of the Down With Campus Censorship campaign, which seeks to fight for free speech at universities.

Battle of Ideas:

This debate formed part of this year’s Battle of Ideas satellite debates. The Battle of Ideas festival of debates per se took place in London’s Barbican Centre took from the 22nd-23rd Octobe, however, the festival also features a number of satellite events, which take place throughout September, October and November each year in diverse European and UK locations.

To find out more about the Battle of Ideas 2016, click here


de Buren, 6 Leopoldstraat, Brussels

This debate has been organised by:

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