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Brexit: Ugly Democracy

June 27, 2016

Democracy, majority rule, self-determination. These are words that are cherished within the western, liberal democratic tradition. These are the principles that men fought and died for on the beaches at Normandy. It was for these principles that woman marched for suffrage and minorities protested for equal protection. It was to defend and extend those ideals that the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union were created. Those very same institutions are now seen as the constrainers rather than the protectors of western democracy. Last Friday (US Eastern Time) the United Kingdom decided through a referendum to leave the European Union. With this move, they become the first state to leave that organization and have brought turmoil to a continent, the world economy, and their own nation. To its supporters in the “Leave” camp it was the United Kingdom’s “independence day,” to its opponents in “Remain,” it was the success of fear-mongering, ignorance, and national chauvinism. I will not attempt to explain the economics of the referendum, many of my friends who have studied international economics have joked that too many now suddenly understand EU economics. Nor will I attempt to doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of the “Leave” voters. Instead I will use this space to critique direct democracy and its anti-liberal tendencies.

Referendum results, Remain is in Yellow, Leave is in Blue, note that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain – Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Let us assume for a minute that every person who voted in the EU referendum, the results were 52 percent in favor of leaving, with 48 percent in favor of staying in. This was coupled with an election turnout of over 70 percent. Therefore with only these numbers, the referendum shows a close, but clear decision, by the people, to leave the European Union. However, as one drills down, the numbers become somewhat more complicated. The United Kingdom did not vote to leave the European Union, England and Wales voted to leave. Scotland voted 62 percent to 38 percent to stay. Northern Ireland, which fears either absorbtion into the Republic of Ireland, or – barring that – a return to The Troubles of the 1970’s-90’s, voted 55 percent Remain, to 45 percent Leave. Thus convincing majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland did not wish for separation from the European Union, but because there are more people in the north of England they have been taken, against the will of their people, out of the Union. Is this democratic? In a word, yes. By the dictionary definition of democracy, which can be defined by majority rule, this result is fair.

The real problem with referenda is not necessarily that the people will make the wrong choice, but rather that they do not have the information to make an informed one. This is not to say that they are not intelligent, but rather that they are busy. This is why we have representatives, to make decisions about issues that we ourselves have neither time to contemplate nor the inclination to understand. I was born in a city, what do I know of agricultural subsidies? I have never been to Latin America, what would I know of the cultural, political, or economic idiosyncracies that might affect relations between Venezuela and the United States? The answer to both of those questions is that I do not know. And I have neither the interest in the first case, nor the time in the second to be informed enough for direct input on either question. However, our elected leaders have the benefit of intelligence agencies, regulatory bodies, staffs of experts, as well as the input of industry lobbyists to make those decisions. At this point I would not blame a person for thinking that I disdain democracy; that is not the case. Our leaders are elected. We must hold them accountable. If you disagree with a politician’s policies on a certain area, you vote for someone else. If there is no one else to vote for (as many claim in this election) then one must either a) get more involved, or b) hold their nose and choose the lesser of two evils. Stability is an important good, it is hard to have freedom if there is no government around to protect basic goods.

The United Kingdom’s exit referendum was an act of political cowardice. Prime Minister (now resigned) David Cameron, in a close election campaign back in 2015, promised an in/out referendum on European Union membership. The purpose of such a promise? To placate the euroskeptics within his own party who might have defected to a right-wing party in the general election, thus handing parliament (and his job) to Labour. The result of that promise now? To break from the advice of the founder of Anglo-American conservatism, Edmund Burke,

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

David Cameron believed an exit from the European Union was a bad idea, however he sacrificed his judgment for the opinion of the far-right, and has thus betrayed the trust of large minorities throughout the United Kingdom. In doing so he has most likely administered the death-blow to a state that has always been artificial, Scotland will most likely vote for independence. As Scottish nationalism has risen up, Scotland has only suffered English domination because they were in Europe. Without that anchor they will choose European Union membership every single time. Northern Ireland will most likely be pushed towards union with the Republic of Ireland. There are plenty of Catholics in Northern Ireland who already want union, and with the carrot of readmission into the EU, even pro-British Ulster Irishmen may vote to be joined with Ireland. The European Union has problems, all of them too complicated to get into at this point, in this space, however, resorting to illiberal democracy was simply not the way to do this. As Margaret Thatcher said, “referendums are the tools of dictators and demagogues.” The “Brexit” referendum was not the United Kingdom declaring “independence,” it was the success of demagogory over the established political process. Something to think about on this side of the pond.



From → Current Events

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