Bri­tain’s demo­cratic fail­ure

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The real lu­nacy of the United King­dom’s vote to leave the Euro­pean Union was not that Bri­tish lead­ers dared to ask their pop­u­lace to weigh the ben­e­fits of mem­ber­ship against the im­mi­gra­tion pres­sures it presents. Rather, it was the ab­surdly low bar for exit, re­quir­ing only a sim­ple ma­jor­ity. Given voter turnout of 70%, this meant that the leave cam­paign won with only 36% of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers back­ing it.

This isn’t democ­racy; it is Rus­sian roulette for re­publics. A de­ci­sion of enor­mous con­se­quence – far greater even than amend­ing a coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion (of course, the United King­dom lacks a writ­ten one) – has been made with­out any ap­pro­pri­ate checks and bal­ances.

Does the vote have to be re­peated after a year to be sure? No. Does a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment have to sup­port Brexit? Ap­par­ently not. Did the UK’s pop­u­la­tion re­ally know what they were vot­ing on? Ab­so­lutely not. In­deed, no one has any idea of the con­se­quences, both for the UK in the global trad­ing sys­tem, or the ef­fect on do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. I am afraid it is not go­ing to be a pretty pic­ture.

Mind you, cit­i­zens of the West are blessed to live in a time of peace: chang­ing cir­cum­stances and pri­or­i­ties can be ad­dressed through demo­cratic pro­cesses in­stead of for­eign and civil wars. But what, ex­actly, is a fair, demo­cratic process for mak­ing ir­re­versible, na­tion-defin­ing de­ci­sions? Is it re­ally enough to get 52% to vote for breakup on a rainy day?

In terms of dura­bil­ity and con­vic­tion of pref­er­ences, most so­ci­eties place greater hur­dles in the way of a cou­ple seek­ing a di­vorce than Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron’s gov­ern­ment did on the de­ci­sion to leave the EU. Brex­i­teers did not in­vent this game; there is am­ple prece­dent, in­clud­ing Scot­land in 2014 and Que­bec in 1995. But, un­til now, the gun’s cylin­der never stopped on the bul­let. Now that it has, it is time to re­think the rules of the game.

The idea that some­how any de­ci­sion reached any­time by ma­jor­ity rule is nec­es­sar­ily “demo­cratic” is a per­ver­sion of the term. Mod­ern democ­ra­cies have evolved sys­tems of checks and bal­ances to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of mi­nori­ties and to avoid mak­ing un­in­formed de­ci­sions with cat­a­strophic con­se­quences. The greater and more last­ing the de­ci­sion, the higher the hur­dles.

That’s why en­act­ing, say, a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment gen­er­ally re­quires clear­ing far higher hur­dles than pass­ing a spend­ing bill. Yet the cur­rent in­ter­na­tional stan­dard for break­ing up a coun­try is ar­guably less de­mand­ing than a vote for low­er­ing the drink­ing age.

With Europe now fac­ing the risk of a slew of fur­ther breakup votes, an ur­gent ques­tion is whether there is a bet­ter way to make these de­ci­sions. I polled sev­eral lead­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists to see whether there is any aca­demic con­sen­sus; short an­swer is no.

For one thing, the Brexit de­ci­sion may have looked sim­ple on the bal­lot, but in truth no one knows what comes next after a leave vote. What we do know is that, in prac­tice, most coun­tries re­quire a “su­per­ma­jor­ity” for na­tion-defin­ing de­ci­sions, not a mere 51%. There is no universal fig­ure like 60%, but the gen­eral prin­ci­ple is that, at a bare min­i­mum, the ma­jor­ity ought to be demon­stra­bly sta­ble. A coun­try should not be mak­ing fun­da­men­tal, ir­re­versible changes based on a ra­zor-thin mi­nor­ity that might pre­vail only dur­ing a brief win­dow of emo­tion. Even if the UK econ­omy does not fall into out­right re­ces­sion after this vote (the pound’s de­cline might cush­ion the ini­tial blow), there is ev­ery chance that the re­sult­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal dis­or­der will give some who voted to leave “buy­ers’ re­morse.”

Since an­cient times, philoso­phers have tried to de­vise sys­tems to try to bal­ance the strengths of ma­jor­ity rule against the need to en­sure that in­formed par­ties get a larger say in crit­i­cal de­ci­sions, not to men­tion that mi­nor­ity voices are heard. In the Spar­tan as­sem­blies of an­cient Greece, votes were cast by ac­cla­ma­tion. Peo­ple could mod­u­late their voice to re­flect the in­ten­sity of their pref­er­ences, with a pre­sid­ing of­fi­cer care­fully lis­ten­ing and then declar­ing the out­come. It was im­per­fect, but maybe bet­ter than what just hap­pened in the UK.

By some ac­counts, Sparta’s sis­ter state, Athens, had im­ple­mented the purest his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ple of democ­racy. All classes were given equal votes (al­beit only males). Ul­ti­mately, though, after some cat­a­strophic war de­ci­sions, Athe­ni­ans saw a need to give more power to in­de­pen­dent bod­ies.

What should the UK have done if the ques­tion of EU mem­ber­ship had to be asked (which by the way, it didn’t)? Surely, the hur­dle should have been a lot higher; for ex­am­ple, Brexit should have re­quired, say, two pop­u­lar votes spaced out over at least two years, fol­lowed by a 60% vote in the House of Com­mons. If Brexit still pre­vailed, at least we could know it was not just a one­time snap­shot of a frag­ment of the pop­u­la­tion.

The UK vote has thrown Europe into tur­moil. A lot will de­pend on how the world re­acts and how the UK gov­ern­ment man­ages to re­con­sti­tute it­self. It is im­por­tant to take stock not just of the out­come, though, but of the process. Any ac­tion to re­de­fine a long­stand­ing ar­range­ment on a coun­try’s bor­ders ought to re­quire a lot more than a sim­ple ma­jor­ity in a one-time vote. The cur­rent in­ter­na­tional norm of sim­ple ma­jor­ity rule is, as we have just seen, a for­mula for chaos.


the been very tight in the run-up to the vote. One of the last re­sults from YouGov showed a one point dif­fer­ence in favour of ‘Re­main’, while oth­ers had it neck and neck. In Europe how­ever, the feel­ing was gen­er­ally in sup­port of the UK re­main­ing in the EU, with 70% say­ing Brexit would be a bad thing.

De­spite all the blus­ter from politi­cians, a poll by Ip­sos Mori showed that only 12% of peo­ple held any trust in those in power when it comes to the ref­er­en­dum. Way out in front were friends and fam­ily mem­bers with 73% and aca­demics with 66%. Such was the com­plex­ity of the de­bate, how­ever, even aca­demics and ex­perts con­sis­tently failed to agree on the po­ten­tial out­comes of a vote to leave. As il­lus­trated here, the ef­fects on GDP are fore­cast to be any­where from a 7.5% drop to a 4% in­crease. The fu­ture of the United King­dom and the EU truly hangs in the bal­ance and the po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions will be mas­sive. (Source:

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