Brexit demon­strates the dan­gers of di­rect democ­racy

The Idaho Statesman - - Opinion - BY GE­ORGE WILL Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

In my coun­try the peo­ple can do as they like, although it of­ten hap­pens that they don’t like what they have done.” – Win­ston Churchill, 1946 Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, as U.S. power was eclips­ing Bri­tain’s, Harold Macmillan, a fu­ture prime min­is­ter, re­port­edly said, “These Amer­i­cans rep­re­sent the new Ro­man Em­pire and we Bri­tons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.” To­day, Bri­tain’s Brexit ag­o­nies – its 2 1/2-year strug­gle to dis­en­tan­gle it­self from the Euro­pean Union –in­di­cate that Amer­ica’s Founders could teach 21st-cen­tury Bri­tain some­thing: Di­rect democ­racy is dan­ger­ous be­cause pub­lic sen­ti­ments need to be re­fined by fil­tra­tion through de­lib­er­a­tive in­sti­tu­tions.

A June 2016 ref­er­en­dum en­dorsed (52 per­cent to 48 per­cent) ex­it­ing the EU. Im­ple­ment­ing this has, how­ever, be­come messier than any­one, es­pe­cially vot­ers, an­tic­i­pated.

Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion was con­ceived in fear – Euro­peans’ fear of them­selves, a residue of wars pro­duced by var­i­ous atavisms, in­clud­ing un­hinged na­tion­al­ism. For decades Bri­tain’s Tories have been bit­terly di­vided about the pro­ject of “har­mo­niz­ing” po­lit­i­cal prac­tices and eco­nomic poli­cies, with a prob­a­ble con­se­quence of ho­mog­e­nized na­tional cul­tures. The em­bryo of the EU was a free trade zone – a sin­gle mar­ket. But as the uni­fi­ca­tion pro­ject be­came more am­bi­tious, it re­quired the dero­ga­tion of na­tional par­lia­ments and hence of na­tions’ sovereign­ties. So, in 1988 Mar­garet Thatcher voiced what be­came Con­ser­va­tive Euroskep­tics’ cri de coeur: “We have not suc­cess­fully rolled back the fron­tiers of the state in Bri­tain, only to see them re-im­posed at a Euro­pean level with a Euro­pean su­per-state ex­er­cis­ing a new dom­i­nance from Brus­sels.”

Hop­ing to cau­ter­ize the Con­ser­va­tive Party’s longfes­ter­ing wound, in 2016 then-Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron suc­cumbed to the plebisc­i­tary temp­ta­tion, sched­ul­ing the ref­er­en­dum that he thought Re­main would win. It lost, he re­signed, and Theresa May, who had voted Re­main, be­came prime min­is­ter. She called an elec­tion ex­pect­ing to in­crease her par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity and thus her lever­age ne­go­ti­at­ing terms of divorce from the EU. In­stead, she lost her ma­jor­ity and was forced into an al­liance with a North­ern Ire­land party.

It is dis­may­ing that most of the bind­ing law in Bri­tain comes from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion in Brus­sels. But why, with its pri­macy at stake, did Par­lia­ment punt one of the most mo­men­tous de­ci­sions in British his­tory to a ref­er­en­dum? The bedrock prin­ci­ple of rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment is that “the peo­ple” do not de­cide is­sues, they de­cide who shall de­cide. And once a leg­is­la­ture sloughs off re­spon­si­bil­ity and re­sorts to a ref­er­en­dum on the du­bi­ous premise that the sim­ple way to find out what peo­ple want is to ask them, it is dif­fi­cult to avoid re­cur­ring episodes of plebisc­i­tary democ­racy.

Although the deal May ne­go­ti­ated ad­dresses im­mi­gra­tion anx­i­eties by end­ing the free move­ment of peo­ple be­tween Bri­tain and the EU, and lim­its pay­ments to the EU and sub­jec­tion to the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice, Bri­tain would re­main in­def­i­nitely sub­ject to many EU reg­u­la­tions and some as­sess­ments but without the abil­ity to shape them. On Tues­day, Par­lia­ment prob­a­bly will re­sound­ingly re­ject the deal. The 73 days un­til the March 29 dead­line for leav­ing the EU will be event­ful.

In 2016, a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers over age 43 fa­vored leav­ing, a ma­jor­ity of those younger fa­vored re­main­ing. Since then, mor­tal­ity has taken many Leavers, and many young peo­ple have joined the elec­torate. So, de­mog­ra­phy, com­bined with a new un­der­stand­ing of Brexit’s cer­tain costs and myr­iad un­cer­tain­ties, could cause 2016’s big bang that be­gan Brexit to end with a 2019 whim­per of a ref­er­en­dum say­ing, “Oh, never mind.”

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