Posts Tagged ‘Brexit’

Finessing Brexit

February 14, 2019

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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Interrogating Democracy

August 8, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Brexit has triggered two arguments about democracy: (1) Voters are ignorant, and (2) Representatives are selfish. In either case the implications for governance are grave. It is significant that the questions are being asked in the West. They have always been on the table in countries like Pakistan but dismissed as reflecting the limitations of people rather than of democracy.

The answers in Pakistan are clear. The wisdom of voters is extolled in theory but undermined by contempt for their intelligence in practise. Citizens are never asked how the revenue they contribute ought to be allocated – they cannot be trusted to determine what is good for them or the nation. As for the representatives, voters are convinced of their dishonesty, their task limited to selecting the least crooked. The rulers themselves leave no doubt accusing each other of egregious malfeasance.

In the West the questions are more nuanced and therefore of greater intellectual interest. What is the limit to the knowledge of voters? They are considered independent and capable enough to choose local representatives based on their preferences but can they disentangle the pros and cons of multi-layered questions of economic policy? Should they be expected to do so? If they are, does that leave them vulnerable to being misled by those with vested interests?

Vested interests are at the heart of the second question. Have financial considerations now so dominated social ones that rulers prioritize the interests of capital over those of people? And have the interests of ruling elites become so enmeshed with the protection of capital that they have reneged on their promise to advance the welfare of citizens?

After all the ink that has been spent on Brexit, the conclusions appear quite sobering: Many voters acted seemingly against their economic interests to kick back at rulers whom they considered uncaring; Both factions of the rulers lied, one just more effectively than the other – incredibly, the winners admitted immediately after the surprise outcome that they had done so.

These conclusions are a sad commentary on the present state of democracy and a troubling sign of its future trajectory. As problems faced by nation-states become more complex in a globalized economy the stresses of the market will transfer to politics. Strains will increase and the side that lies more effectively will continue to gain ground till there is a break.

Some of the consequences are already quite obvious. Both in England and the USA, the plight of the population hurt by the workings of global capital is being blamed on migrants leading to a politics of fear, resentment, and racism. The rise of Trump leaves little doubt in this regard.

What then is to be done? The key is to realize that the system of democratic governance is comprised of rules some of which need to be re-examined, fine-tuned, or changed, if necessary. To take an obvious example: Is the system based on plebiscitary or representative democracy? If the latter, as is the case in Britain, was a Yes-No referendum on staying in the EU not an act of great irresponsibility taken only for self-interested political reasons? How can such reckless gambles be forestalled in the future?     

Consider a less obvious but equally consequential rule. Two Nobel laureates, Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, have argued that Trump would not have emerged as the Republican presidential candidate if the primaries had followed a rule other than the first-past-the-post (FPTP), winner-take-all one. And David Runciman, a leading British academic, has claimed that “the primary cause of the referendum result is the first-past-the-post system, albeit through its secondary effects.” Referring to the fact that the UK and USA are among the few developed countries to follow the FPTP, he goes on to say that  “it also isn’t a coincidence that the two places where truly destabilizing populist politics have been let off the leash are Britain and the United States.”

This is a salutary reminder that electoral rules matter to the extent that they can break countries apart. The fact that South Asia has inherited the FPTP from Britain without any serious exploration of its appropriateness or implications does not bode well for our future.

It is not that we have been immune to rule changes – recall those that barred more than two turns as prime minister or required a graduate degree to be elected to parliament. Both were accepted as part of politics without serious intellectual attention to the importance of rules to good governance. Unless we pay attention to these details we will continue to suffer from the vagaries of democracy till popular pressure builds up for the only binary alternative we can imagine – never mind that the cure has always been worse than the disease. Thinking on constitutional arrangements has to advance to avoid a fate that thrives on ignorance.

This opinion was published in Dawn on August 7, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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