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The Democratic Deficit in British Politics

11 November 2019
The Democratic Deficit in British Politics

The legitimacy of the European Union referendum in the United Kingdom on June 23rd 2016, which started the United Kingdom's process of leaving the European Union (Brexit) after 51.9 per cent of voters chose to leave the European Union, is still under debate.

The small difference between the proportion of those who wanted to stay in the Union and those who wanted to leave, the fact that 12.9 million voters opted not to vote[1] and that the polls conducted after the referendum show that the majority of people want to stay in the European Union[2] constitute the reasons for the dispute over the legitimacy of the referendum.

Arguing over the legitimacy of the European Union referendum is a national level discussion in the United Kingdom, but at the smaller scale of Scotland, this discussion becomes much more complicated. In Scotland, 62 per cent of the people voted to keep EU membership in the referendum. Due to Brexit, Scottish people are being dragged out of the European Union against their own will; which has two distinct results. First, the European Union referendum turned into a factor which empowers the arguments of the pro-independence discourse in Scotland, which argues that there is a “democratic deficit” in British politics. Second, the European Union referendum serves as a basis for demands to hold a second independence referendum in Scotland; however, London has rejected this Scottish request for now. If the United Kingdom government does not permit a second Scottish independence referendum, it cannot be carried out; and the negative attitude of London in turn supports the Scottish pro-independence discourse’s “democracy deficit” argument.

In short, the claim that there is a “democracy deficit” in British politics and the demands for a referendum on Scottish independence have been mutually strengthening each other since the European Union referendum.

However, the claims of the Scottish pro-independence camp about how there is a “democracy deficit” in British politics is not directly related to the European Union referendum. This is a topic that has a history of its own, long before the referendum. Particularly during the Scottish independence referendum campaigns in 2014, the argument of a “democracy deficit” in British politics were expressed loudly. In fact, the “democracy deficit" claim had formed the backbone of the “Yes” campaign carried out by independence supporters before the independence referendum. According to adherents, the fact that Scotland is administrated from London is the main source of this “Democracy deficit”. In Scotland, which is a part of the United Kingdom, the fact that being ruled by London is considered a “problem” may sound odd at first glance, but the Scots have a reason. This reason is that the results of the general elections in the UK differ from those in Scotland; which means that Scotland is not governed by the party which receives the most votes in Scotland. In Cairney's words, this democracy deficit stems from the fact “While the Scots usually vote for the Labour party, the UK government is mostly Conservative.”[3] Therefore, the pro-independence camps draws strength from this position and usually uses arguments along the line; “when we become independent, we will be governed by governments of our choice; not one established by a party we did not vote for."

This "democracy deficit” discourse in Scotland, one of the four nations of the union, is open to discussion because of the fact that the country-wide results differ from the results in Scotland, Scots are governed by a government they did not vote for. One might even deny a “democracy deficit” in British politics through the very reason set forth by Scots. This is because it does not seem “acceptable” to turn the results of general elections into an argument for a "democracy deficit”.

However, the existence of the argument of independence supporters in Scotland that there is a "democracy deficit” in British politics is a matter of political importance not only in terms of whether or not the reasons are acceptable, but also in terms of its possible consequences, particularly when it comes to the Brexit process. The Scottish independence supporters’ “democracy deficit” argument is without a doubt gaining ground due to the fact that the Scots are being dragged out of the European Union against their own will due to Brexit. As mentioned above, the fact that London does not allow for the second independence referendum requested by independence supports in Scotland and that it cannot be held without the permission formed London turned into a running factor which reinforces the Scots’ argument of “democracy deficit”. Consequently, the argument of the “democracy deficit” poses a threat for the unity and integrity of the United Kingdom, as the argument grows stronger with Brexit.

There is another point that should be mentioned about the matter of "democracy deficit” in British politics. There is the risk that the Scotland-based "democracy deficit” argument might spread over the country; this risk applies not only to Northern Ireland and Wales; but also to England, where separatist movements have not yet been observed. It is becoming increasingly clear that this risk is too important to be ignored in light of calls for an English parliament in the United Kingdom, which does not have its own parliament. The demand of the English to establish an English parliament has come up since Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments and the demand for an English parliament has increased after the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. Experts point out that this demand, which was weak and quiet in the past, became intensified and supported under the light of the discourse “English laws should be made by parliamentarians elected from England” [4] Roughly 4 out of 10 people want an English parliament to be established.[5]   In addition, it is noteworthy that the desire to establish an English parliament is even stronger among the anti-European Union voters.[6] This means that it is not wrong to interpret this demand for an English parliament as an English nationalistic sentiment, just as in the case of Brexit.

The English, who are asking for an English parliament, also claim that there is a "democracy deficit" in British politics; according to the English, the source of this "democracy deficit” is the fact that even though Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments, England does not have one of its own and the solution is to establish an English Parliament. For example, Tristram Hunt of the Labour Party stated that the English should have their own parliament in order to fix the "democracy deficit" in British politics and a referendum to be held for establishing the parliament would be "a democratic awakening" similar to that in Scotland.[7]


According to the Scottish independence supporters, there is a “democracy deficit" in British politics and the reason for it is the fact that Scotland is being governed from London by a government which did not receive majority of the votes in Scotland. According to another section in the United Kingdom, there is a “democracy deficit” in British politics because while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments, England does not have its own. The Scots argue that in order to eliminate this "democracy deficit” Scotland should become and independent country while the English claim that in order to fix this “democracy deficit” a English parliament should be established, which will consist only of English parliamentarians. Even though their reasons and solutions are different, it is clear that this “democracy deficit” claimed to exist in British politics carries the risk of separating and breaking the country as opposed to unity and integrity.  The Brexit process, which started with the results of a disputed referendum, turned into a factor which supports the discourses of “democracy deficit.”




[1], accessed on 15 September 2019


[2], accessed on 16 September 2019


[3]Paul Cairney, “A Crisis of theUnion”,, accessed on 28 August 2019.


[4] John Denham, Is There a route to an English Parliament,, 11 February 2019


[5]Brian Wheeler, Will England ever gets its ownParliament?,, 7 June 2018




[7]Nicholas Watt, English parliament would balance ‘democratic deficit’ says Tristram Hunt, Brian Wheeler, ibid.