On 23 June 2016, Anne Perkins wrote in her Guardian column: 'an unusually low tide occasionally reveals an ancient henge, the referendum campaign has exposed a chasm in British politics'. (1) This trope of the chasm or divide in British politics has become extremely widespread, and the idea that 'Leavers' and 'Remainers' represent two distinct and irreconcilable groups in British politics is now rather commonplace. However, it is not the metaphor of a divided Britain that I want to discuss here, but rather the assumption in the article that the referendum result revealed something that already existed: like a henge buried by low tide.
This assumption that referenda and other elections function as ways of revealing the preferences of a population is likewise widespread. The day after the referendum, a range of newspapers from across the political spectrum (2) referred to the revelation of a divided Britain, a narrative that also appeared in BBC coverage of the result. (3) Academic accounts, such as the psephological study by Clarke et al, Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU, similarly refer to the referendum as revelatory:
Britain's decision to leave the European Union revealed as much about how its society had been changing for many years as it did about the impact of the short and bitter referendum campaign itself. (4) This study carefully traces the reasons why leave voters appear to have voted leave over many years through the rise of UKIP and increasing pressure on David Cameron to hold a referendum. The authors conclude that the referendum vote was by and large a question of 'valence' (or competence): voters felt that the EU was preventing effective action by their elected representatives on issues they cared about, such as immigration and the economy, and that is why they voted leave.
However, another way of thinking about the referendum is that, rather than revealing divisions that had been there all along, instead it produced those divisions. This analysis is also incipient in the same journalistic accounts, with the BBC's Mark Easton suggesting immediately after a claim that the referendum had revealed 'ancient' divisions, that the result is 'a scar that has sliced through conventional politics and traditional social structures'. (5) This seems to be a contradiction: if all the referendum did was reveal existing decisions, surely it could not also 'slice' or be at odds with the structures and conventions that existed previously? To get to the bottom of this problem, we need to engage with a central concern in the philosophy of science as it features in debates about how we can know anything about the political and social world: are human individuals reasonably stable and knowable, such that their interests and preferences can be counted? Or does generating knowledge about them change and shape those human subjects to the extent that their individuality is formed and transformed in the process? In other words, by asking people to vote one of two ways, do we come to know and understand people's pre-existing preferences, or do we shape those people and their preferences into two exclusive groups that did not exist before?
In what follows, I sketch out the difference it might make if we take seriously the notion of elections as productive not only of division, but also of some of the characteristics that we take to be most fundamental about the individual voter: their identity and their preferences. I want to suggest that such characteristics are produced through the very acts and practices that appear to be their expression. To return to the metaphor with which we started: what if the sea were not exposing the ancient henge, but rather the action of the water was carving the structure out? What might it mean to think about elections as events that can fundamentally shape and change the societies in which they take place? How might such an understanding change the ways we account for the role of elections and voting in liberal democracies? And what might the consequences be?
What purpose does it serve?
In trying to understand any political practice or technology, it is often useful to ask what purpose it serves and what problem it is being used to solve. In the case of elections, why is the transformation of political preferences into numbers a useful thing to do, and for whom?
As Sally Engle Merry points out, 'it is the capacity of numbers to provide knowledge of a complex and murky world that renders quantification so seductive'. (6) Stephen Coleman assesses the attractiveness of quantifying preferences in elections by pointing to three related uses of voting and polling. (7) First, the practice of counting votes is detached: each vote counts for one no matter who is casting or counting it. Second, by creating simple comparable categories, quantification smooths over complexity, including the messy and contradictory reasons why voters cast their vote in particular ways in the first place and the intensity with which they do so. Votes, unlike the people who cast them, are commensurable and comparable. Third, voting makes preferences visible. In an era of small-l liberalism, where political equality and freedom are the taken-for-granted background assumptions and the role of government is to ensure the flourishing of the population, the logic of elections is that they solve particular problems of knowledge: what should be done to enable the population to be optimally governed and who should take on the role of governing in the name of the population. For referenda, the point is even more straightforward. For a given policy position--what should the voting system be, say, or should we remain in the European Union--the practice of getting the eligible population to vote will yield an answer that can be understood as legitimate, enabling a decision to be made. As David Cameron's own comments make quite clear, this is often the explicit, as well as implicit, reason for calling a referendum. In his famous 2013 Bloomberg speech, pledging to hold the referendum, he said: 'It is time to settle this European question in British politics'. (8)
Certain assumptions underpin this logic. For example, each voter must count as one and must be individually responsible for their decision, which is to be arrived at through the free exercise of their own individual conscience. When I went to the polling station on referendum day to cast proxy votes on behalf of my sister and brother-in-law, I was carefully informed which ballot paper belonged to whom, so that there be no mistake about whose vote was whose: this was important because it was their personal conscience and individual choice at stake in their vote. Not mine and...