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Answerability in democratic accountability: Lessons from Brexit

July 21, 2017 • By Aida Zekic
Photo credit: airpix - 2017

This is a series on the process of democratic accountability as defined by its three main principles: answerability, responsiveness and enforceability. This first article examines the principle of answerability through the initial stages the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU).

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.


Accountability can be defined as an obligation to account for one’s activities, accept responsibility and disclose and justify results. In democratic accountability, the principle of answerability supposes that citizens are provided correct information about government procedures to hold their leaders accountable. As demonstrated throughout this article, the plurality of programmatic parties help citizens to form opinions based on free, correct and clear information.  

In addition to answerability, the principle of responsiveness requires a government to listen and integrate the views of citizens in its decisions, while enforceability means that government faces sanctions or rewards in relation to the demands of citizens. These three principles of democratic accountability may be put into action through media, surveys, protests and elections—among other arenas.[1]

In the United Kingdom, Eurosceptics across political parties, including the governing Conservative Party, pushed former Prime Minister David Cameron to announce a public vote on the continuation of EU membership. The referendum campaign began in late 2015, to which both the Conservative and Labour parties were unable to provide a unified stand.[2] The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), on the other hand, played a prominent role in the Leave campaign and may have contributed to the Leave side winning the popular vote in June 2016.    

Since the referendum, polls measuring EU favourability among UK citizens have shown vague tendencies towards a recovery of the remain-side.[3] [4] Discussions surrounding a potentially unrepresentative voter turnout or shifting public opinion have been partly attributed to a lack of clarity of political party stances on EU membership during the campaign.[5] While the purpose of calling the EU referendum had been to listen the will of the people, political parties may have overlooked the importance of information provision in opinion formation. In addition, it appears that campaigners from both sides mislead the public by making claims that were exaggerated or incorrect.[6]

The inadequate level of answerability during the Brexit campaign showed its effects long after the vote was cast. The Conservative Party, which needed to face the consequences of the referendum outcome, elected Theresa May as its new leader to spearhead United Kingdom’s EU withdrawal. During her initial conversations with the EU, it turned out that the substantial public demand for controls on immigration would only be possible with UK leaving the EU single market. This led May to announce that the UK would force a ‘hard Brexit’ to give UK full control over its borders.[7] [8]

Whether the wide scope of a ‘hard Brexit’ matches the expectations of the majority of UK citizens that had opted to leave the EU is a precarious question. As the future relationship between UK and EU still is uncertain, it becomes evident that opinion formation is vulnerable to campaign messages that do not present options with clear and realistic paths forward.

In the initial phase of Brexit, Theresa May and the Conservative Party were accountable by accepting a non-binding vote and reversing private positions on the EU question in order to do justice to the will of the people. Still, the UK experience highlights the significance of clear information in answerability and democratic accountability – especially during election campaigns, where the plurality of so-called programmatic parties play a crucial role in shaping informed public opinion. Programmatic parties are known by their political programme, campaign with a single voice based on this programme, and serve citizens by delivering on it.[9] In the run-ups for extraordinary electoral processes such as referenda, these challenges are particularly essential.  

For opinion formation to be sustainable and pave the way for accountable policymaking that matches citizens’ expectations, parties should revert to the principles of programmatic parties and be answerable throughout the entire policy cycle of agenda-setting, policymaking and implementation. Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery provides a guide for assessing this principle and encourages anyone to claim democratic accountability wherever they are.



Responsiveness in democratic accountability (2nd article)

Enforceability in democratic accountability (3rd aticle)


Learn more: 

Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery: A Practical Guide to Identify Improvements though Assessment 

Politics Meets Policies: The Emergence of Programmatic Political Parties


[1] International IDEA, Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery: A Practical Guide to Identify Improvements though Assessment (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2014).
[2] BBC 2016, ‘EU vote: Where the Cabinet and other MPs stand’, 22 June 2016, <>, accessed 11 July 2017.  
[3] Stokes, B., Wike, R., and Manevich, D., ‘Post-Brexit, Europeans More Favorable Toward EU’, 15 June 2017, <>, accessed 11 July 2017.  
[4] What UK Thinks, ‘If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote? (Eurotrack)’, 2017, <>, accessed 18 July 2017. 
[5] Renwick, A., Flinders, M., and Jennings W., ‘The UK’s referendum and post-fact politics: How can campaigners be held accountable for their claims?’, 19 August 2016, <>, accessed 11 July 2017.
[6] Braham, R., ‘False claims, forecasts, and the EU Referendum’, 2 December 2016, <>, accessed 18 July 2017.
[7] James, W., and Taylor, P., ‘EU tells UK single market access requires full free movement’, 29 June 2016, <>, accessed 18 July 2017.
[8] Erlanger, S., et al, ’The British Election That Somehow Made Brexit Even Harder’, 9 June 2017, <>, accessed 6 July 2017.
[9] International IDEA, Politics Meets Policies: The Emergence of Programmatic Political Parties (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2014). 


About the authors

Aida Zekic
Former Research Assistant for Democracy and Development, International IDEA
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