Finessing Brexit

By Anjum Altaf

The lessons from Brexit for democracy and the democratic process are significant and general enough to repay attention even for those whose interest in British politics might be quite limited.

First, it should be quite clear that meta-issues involving complex economic and political dimensions with uncertain outcomes are not suitable for referenda offering binary YES or NO choices. Representative democracy exists for the sensible exercise of judgement on such issues by those elected by the voters to act in their interest. If the latter conclude that their interests are being ignored for any reason, they can change their representatives rather than take decisionmaking into their own hands.

Consider also how unstable the outcome of such a referendum can be with just a slight alteration. Suppose the choices to be voted on in the case of the UK had been, instead of a straightforward YES or NO, the following: Remain, Leave unilaterally, or Leave with a deal that ensures X, Y, and Z. Can anyone guarantee that the outcome would have remained unchanged?   

There does remain a place for referenda even within representative democracy for choices of a much simpler nature, say, on whether a bridge ought to built at a particular location in a city. The residents of the city could well provide a YES or NO input into that decision. But a referendum on leaving a customs union involving something as tricky as the future of the Irish border does not belong in the same category. The referendum called by Cameron was a cynical, self-serving ploy that backfired with huge unintended consequences and such ploys ought to be ruled out of order in any system of representative democracy.

Second, there is sufficient evidence that the Leave campaign involved financing irregularities, false advertising, and outright lies to manipulate voters. It is a surprise that there has been no Mueller-like inquiry to determine the very legitimacy of the referendum. The triggering of all decisions consequent on the outcome of the referendum ought to have been put on hold till the conclusion of a thorough investigation clearing the process.

Third, Mrs. May’s insistence that the verdict of the voters has to be honoured no matter what is itself problematic. Quite independent of the fact that the Leave campaign may have involved criminal irregularities, it gives no weight to the cost of the decision to the national economy and political order. Suppose it is determined that the costs are of an order of magnitude higher than anticipated, would one still insist of honouring the “will” of the voters or would one go back to them with an accounting of the possible consequences? Recall that the representatives of the voters rejected the best deal Mrs. May has been able to get from the EU by the biggest margin in recent parliamentary history. As one who voted Remain, Mrs. May’s single-mindedness seems less a devotion to democracy than a way of saying ‘you asked for it so lump it.’ In a representative democracy the parliament needs be more in control of such decisions than the executive.

Fourth, what is to be done in the kind of situation that exists now, presuming, as seems likely the case, that the deal Mrs. May has is the best she can get because the EU will make no further concessions. Given what has been said about referenda above, the option of a second referendum ought to be ruled out — it would be just as problematic as the first one for exactly the same reasons. Whatever the outcome, it would polarize the polity even further and set a terrible precedent.

One possible alternative would be to leverage the strength of the parliamentary system in finding a way forward. Each representative could take back the best deal negotiated over two years to his or her constituency and have it debated transparently in series of open townhouse forums. The constituents would then be asked to vote on the three available options: Accept the deal, Reject the deal and withdraw unilaterally, or Remain as per the status quo ante. The representatives would then take these verdicts back to parliament and vote as instructed by their constituents in a decision that would be binding on the executive.

From the perspective of the democratic process, this alternative has at least two aspects in its favour. First, the representatives will truly voice the will of their constituents and not be ‘whipped’ to voting contrarily by the will of the executive. Second, it would not polarize the polity in the same way that a direct referendum would simply because of an extended roll-out and its intermediation through representatives seen to be bound to the will of the voters. The EU would have to be asked for an extension but that would be well justified by obtaining the informed consent of the citizens.

Recent events across the world have highlighted many problems with modern democracy but the system retains sufficient strengths to repair the damage if leveraged with a minimum amount of good sense.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on February 10, 2019 and is reproduced here with permission of the 

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