Brexit: the oxymoronic democratic referendum

Being a foreign-born Londoner and one who has sold his soul to the big bad world of finance, the momentous decision of the British electorate to leave the EU has personal resonance. Therefore, I have been meaning to pen my thoughts on Brexit for some time.

The run-up to the Brexit process rent the country into two politically (and sometimes personally) antagonistic camps – the Leavers (buccaneering “Brexiteers” to the latter) who wanted UK to leave the EU and Remainers (“Remoaners” to the former) who wanted to stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the referendum pitted brother against brother, friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour. Leave and Remain campaigns saw a lot of familiar dog-whistling about immigrants, fanciful promises of redirecting EU transfer payments to the UK National Health Service painted on buses, lofty talks of Independence from the Eurocratic elite, facetious (and patronizing) arguments about EU being a civilizing force etc. Where one fell on the Leave-Remain axis was, rather unsurprisingly, correlated to family income distribution, age and rural-urban background. Typically, older people hard of means hailing from small towns were the implacable Brexiteers, as opposed to Remoaning younger city crowd in well-paying jobs. However, out of these three main explanatory factors, age was by far the strongest determinant: even the city-dwelling, indubitably middle-class, older folk tend to be Brexiteers. As the adage goes, Brexit was a gigantic fuck-you! from the grand-dads and grannies.

The Brexit referendum itself was a political gamble by the ruling Tories, led by David Cameron. The decision to hold the In-Out referendum was primarily Cameron’s, widely advertised as a Tory election promise. Cameron’s intention was to use the Remain result (famous last words!) as a giant UK-sized stick to beat the traditional Eurosceptics in his party with. However, the Brexit referendum decision was also endorsed by other political parties, notably UKIP (UK Independence Party), a party of right-wing fruitcakes in Cameron’s own words. The decision to hold the public referendum was arrived at in a rather slapdash fashion, with very little understanding of the public mood, no recourse to a stronger two-thirds majority (as any Constitutional change normally requires, esp. one of this magnitude) and no forethought or planning about the political cataclysm an Out (Brexit) vote would unleash.

The nominal objective of the Brexit referendum was to leave the EU, which essentially meant moving out of the European Council-Commission-Parliament triumvirate and removing the European Court of Justice as the supreme law-making body for the UK. For the uninitiated, the EU law originates from the European Commission, essentially a cabal of bureaucrats drawn from the upper echelons of the civil services – one from each of the 28 member states – that is paid to think European. Any draft directive initiated by the Commission is then debated by the rather emasculated European Parliament, consisting of MEPs elected on a proportional representation basis in constituencies throughout the EU. The number of constituencies (and therefore the number of MEPs) per country is notoriously not proportional to the population of the country. The degressive proportional system leads to perverse outcomes such as the vote of one Luxembourgish or Maltese worth those of over 10 Brits or Germans. It is essentially the same recipe that led to Trump becoming President in spite of a smaller vote share and the last we saw such perversity in our own neck of the woods was Pakistan’s so-called Parity Scheme in the long build up to Bangladesh Liberation. Finally, the Council comprises the heads of member states and the bureaucrat-in-chief a.k.a. President of the Commission. It is meant to provide guidance to the bureaucrats of the Commission and make strategic executive decisions in times of crisis, and throw lavish dinner parties in the meanwhile. The obvious democratic deficit, seriously bloated bureaucracy and other systemic flaws of the EU model are not unknown to European leadership either.

Over the years the European Union has created a financial and economic ecosystem too. This includes, primarily, the European Economic Area (EEA) within which any individual can have visa-free access, seek employment and do business without restrictions or tariffs, a Eurozone i.e. the region where Euro is legal tender (largely isomorphic with the EEA, with UK as the notable exception) and a Eurosystem of banking and finance under the aegis of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – the lender of last resort for the Eurozone. The complex network of these institutions (other than the Eurozone which the UK is anyway out of) is what the Brexit referendum sought to sever the UK from permanently.

Before coming to the nub of this blog post – i.e. whether the Brexit decision was the right choice – I would like to briefly discuss the nature of democracy, which I think is critical in informing the debate around Brexit. [I was initially planning to cover this question in some detail here, but I realized that it’s important enough to need a blog post of its own. So I will be brief and ask you watch this space for a soon upcoming blog post on Democracy.]

Democracy is in its essence an error-correction mechanism. In political terms, it’s a system to remove bad leaders without violence, not a system to elect good ones per se. This may initially seem like a trivial statement, but I urge readers to take a moment to mull it over. This definition of democracy was first mooted by Karl Popper in his seminal work on The Open Society and its Enemies coincidentally published in the same year the Third Reich fell, yet still remains rather poorly understood. What the true will of the people is, or whether such a thing even exists, is of little importance or consequence in a democratic setup. What’s more important is how the system is designed to use that will expressed via the ballot box to ensure terrible leaders (autocrats, revanchists, communists, religious-fascists and other forms of political-utopia seekers generally) can be removed non-violently before it’s too late. The better any electoral system translates the swing in public sentiment into gain/loss of power, the better it is for hedging against downside political risk. It can be argued that First Past the Post tends to do this better than all such systems currently in existence.

Another corollary of this definition of democracy is the nature and function of whom we elect to power. The primary function of chosen representatives (not delegates) isn’t carrying out what some vaguely-defined popular will delegates to them, anymore than it is an airline pilot’s job to fly the plane on passengers’ instructions. Nonetheless a certain class of politicians, the populists (e.g. Messrs Kejriwal, Farage and Trump), take the silly idea of the will-of-the-people too seriously and are perfectly happy to crowd-source solutions to intricate questions of constitutional law and political organization. Such exercises of popular “decision-making”, the kind that animates a populist’s wet dreams, are called referendums. Referendums are therefore (rather paradoxically) antidemocratic, because they confound the whole point of the exercise of seeking votes from people.

The political brinksmanship behind the In-Out referendum decision, dog-whistling of the Brexiteer populists, oligarchical nature of the EU Commission (fancy continental version of a village panchayat or tribal jirga), democratic deficit of the EU Parliamentary system and the sheer pointlessness of putting Constitutional changes to popular vote makes the Brexit story look like a farcical plot from The Thick of It rather than real life. But it is very real and it happened, even after several prognostications by leading opinion-makers of British society that the actual Brexit decision was too radical to come to pass. Brexit and the political drama in its aftermath has also inspired creative fiction, which has essentially been critical of the decision.

My personal take on Brexit is that it’s a terrible means to a good end. Referendums like Brexit and Indyref (the one before on Scottish Independence) have created a terrible precedent in UK’s political culture to settle debates by popular voting. It encourages rank populism, incentivises escaping responsibility/blame in politicians by outsourcing important decisions to the prevailing whims and fancies of the public and diminishes the historically constructive role of the Parliament. Nonetheless, Brexit did save the UK from an undemocratic (and frankly dangerous) Eurocracy. Europe’s democratic politics is still in its infancy. E.g. most countries of Continental Europe have not had a long experience of democracy – half of Germany became a proper democracy in the 50s and the second half in the 90s, Spain and Portugal in 70s and 80s, Italy in the 50s, France in roughly 1890s and the less said of Eastern Europe the better – compared to UK’s Bill of Rights of 1689 that made the Parliament sovereign. As many Europeans themselves will grudgingly admit (perhaps after a pint or two), the British invented the modern concept of Parliamentary Democracy. Therefore, the British ought to be justifiably protective of their superior political culture against its slow dilution by the ever paternalistic EU. In conclusion, the normative last word on Brexit is a function of how consequentialist one is prepared to be – to follow Gandhi’s example or Kautilya’s. I chickened out and chose the former when voting Remain.

Author: Slapstik

I was born in Kashmir and a strange turn of events spanning over 2 decades led me to London, where I now live and work. I have a deep interest in linguistics, geo-political history, Science and philosophy of Science and occassionally my writings reflect that interest. I am an ardent Popperian, a technophile, a trekkie and a below average cook. Twitter: @kaeshour

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