Referendums

Failed gamble

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Workers counting votes after polling stations closed, in Glasgow, Scotland, on June 23. Photo: CLODAGH KILCOYNE/REUTERS

At the Pollokshields Primary School polling station in Glasgow on June 23. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Brexit is a perfect case study of how referendums offer binary choices and reflect the people’s frustrations, without factoring in uncertainties and complications.

It began as David Cameron’s plan to quell factionalism within his party, where groups have been at loggerheads for decades over “Project Europe”, by extracting some concessions from the European Union (E.U.) in early February such as a cap on welfare to immigrants and flexibility on the European operations of London’s financial institutions and then calling a national referendum to vote “aye” or “nay” on staying within the E.U. The outcome was supposed to be the proverbial “sure thing”, silencing the critics, but the gamble failed to the surprise of virtually the whole world. Britain voted to leave, 52 per cent to 48 per cent.

Perhaps Cameron should have remembered the words of Robert Burns: The best-laid plans of mice and men, go oft awry. And the ghost of the great Scottish poet must be smiling as a furious Scotland, which voted 68 per cent to “remain”, threatens to negotiate its own deal with the E.U., if necessary by leaving the United Kingdom, through another referendum for an independent Scotland.

This was the U.K.’s second referendum on Europe, the first in 1975 concerning the European Common Market (ECM). Prime Minister Harold Wilson called for a referendum for exactly the same reason as Cameron. The U.K. voted to stay in, with a majority vote of 67 per cent. Interestingly, immigration played a part in that referendum too, but not immigration into the U.K., at that time the “sick man of Europe”, but emigration from the U.K. to Europe.

As the expansion took place from the ECM (6) to the European Economic Community (9) to the E.U. (28), the U.K. was always an a la carte member—part of the single market but out of the eurozone as well as the Schengen regime, which guarantees visa-free travel within the E.U.

I do not want to add to the ocean of analysis that has inundated the world on what is certainly one of the seminal events of the post-War world. However, beyond the obvious economic, political and social implications of the vote for the U.K., Europe, and indeed the world, the campaigns and the result throw up much wider and long-term issues such as referendums as a tool of expressing the “general will” of the people; populism versus liberalism; and facts versus perception. Brexit offers an illuminating and irresistible opportunity to focus on these existential issues.

Referendums have existed in one form or the other ever since there have been the rulers and the ruled.

The arguments in favour are the following: If democracy is our goal, then important issues affecting them should best be voted on by the people as a whole, or at least all who are eligible to vote. This is direct democracy, unsullied by vested interests, party politics with its back-room deals and horse-trading. It lets the voters decide on controversial issues where the elected representatives are unable or unwilling to take a call, or when they are stuck procedurally. It minimises the nasty role of lobbyists and money power. It addresses the frustrations of the people and produces a clear result. It counters voter apathy and increases their awareness of the issues that confront them. Significantly, no referendum has ever been rejected.

Against, we have the following:

First, it undermines the role of the elected representatives. Logistics apart, the parliamentary system, with people being ruled by representatives they elect for a term, allows citizens to dismiss governments after their term if they are dissatisfied. It is not only far more practical but includes, most importantly, the checks and balances that are an intrinsic part of political parties in an elected parliament. The people can vote in a referendum with no real stake in the outcome. You cannot elect a new “people” if the outcome is a mess but you can vote out a governing party and replace it with a new one. And because parties and their elected members want, above all, to stay in power, their approach would be far less casual than the man on the street.

Second, voters are usually not well informed about issues, especially complex ones. The assertion that a referendum is “purer” because it comes straight from the people and is without contamination by lobbyists and vested interests is incorrect; there is just as much politics in a referendum, and more, if you add the all-pervasive social media. Bias of various kinds is the rule, not the exception.

Third, a referendum reflects the people’s present frustrations and priorities; the resulting uncertainties and complications are almost never a factor.

Fourth, a referendum always gives the people a stark, binary choice: pick “yes” or “no”. In a vast majority of issues, the choice is hardly that simple.

Finally, no matter how bizarre the outcome, it is irreversible. Even if rejection is legally possible, the near-mystic virtue of the general will is such that it is impossible to contest.

Brexit is a perfect case study. The argument in favour does not hold water. Cameron cynically gambled his country’s future against his unopposed leadership of his party, and lost. The country pays the cost. Parliament was not facing a logjam; it was his party that was deeply divided. Lobbying and vested interests were very much in evidence. The result was clear, as it has to be in an either-or case but has muddied the future. News of second thoughts among those who voted “Leave” started appearing within hours of the result.

The arguments against seem valid. It did undermine Parliament where an overwhelming majority was in favour of remaining in the E.U. The voters were ill-informed and unable to distinguish facts from lies and propaganda and voted their prejudices. They had no knowledge of the consequences. And the harm they did, and harm it was, is irreversible.

Just like the death sentence, the referendum should not be banned but used in the “rarest of rare” cases; for the rest, in a democracy, it is better to stick to the elected legislature and a parliamentary system subject to judicial review. Parliament, with all its problems, is a safer bet than an angry, emotion-driven populace.

Populism vs Liberalism

As the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde wrote in 2015, “populism” is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and the “corrupt elite”. Populists reject opposition, or the existence of differing views in society. The people’s voice is supreme, and thus any dissent belongs to the corrupt elite. For the populists, liberals are elitists—a front for special interests. The call is for “returning power to the people”, or, in the case of Brexit, “we want our country back”.

While liberalism sounds more attractive, with its respect for diversity and civil liberties, there is some truth in populist accusations that procedures are devised by liberals to create a political elite that distances itself from issues that agitate people and centralises power. It is also true that populist campaigns force discussions on issues that are important to the people but which the elite want to gloss over.

Populism has more energy, it shouts its messages louder. In a campaign, it is the blunt instrument. It manages almost always to set the agenda. In Brexit, the populists responded to the fears of the citizenry on the jobs-immigration nexus and made it the central issue, and the genuine economic arguments of the liberals failed to turn the tide.

The lesson from this affair is that the masses, even in highly educated and developed societies, respond to populist messages. To counter populism is going to be a very long haul.

Facts and perception

In most political campaigns, the first casualty is the truth. Brexit proved this incontrovertibly. Here are just a few examples of the lies the voters were subjected to unrelentingly: The U.K. pays 350 million pounds a week to the E.U. (It pays less than half this amount and also gets a rebate. The many billions it gets through tariff-free trade with a single market is ignored, and this is now coming back to haunt the country.)

The U.K. is the highest, or among the three highest, contributors to the E.U. budget. (It is the fourth, after Germany, France and Italy.)

Some 60 per cent of laws in the U.K. are passed by the E.U., by the European Commission, the super bureaucrats of Brussels. (The Commission cannot make laws. It can only propose them, apart from proposals made by member states. Laws are debated and passed by the European Council, where every member country has a vote, and endorsed by the European Parliament, which has elected members from every member state. Research shows that over a period of time, the U.K. supported 95 per cent of proposed laws, abstained on 3 per cent and opposed 2 per cent.)

People think 15 per cent of the population are immigrants, or 10.5 million. Those for “Leave” said 20 per cent, those who wanted to “Remain” said 10 per cent. (The correct figure is 3.5 million, or 5 per cent.)

The fat cats in the E.U. spend 27 million pounds on administration. (The correct figure is six million pounds.)

All this in an educated, rich and developed society. The truth may make you free, but in election campaigns worldwide, Brexit being no exception, it may not win you the majority vote.

In the U.K., populism, with its single-minded focus on immigration, with the subtexts of job losses and posters of swarms of Poles, blacks and West Asian refugees entering Britain, putting intolerable pressure on the welfare state’s services and opening the door to terrorists, prevailed over the largely economic arguments of those for “Remain”.

Xenophobia, bigotry, racism and scapegoating the E.U. through a tissue of lies and scaremongering, with a sugar-coating of nostalgia for a time when the sun never set on the British empire, narrowly won the day. David Cameron asked for it, putting party interests first in a gamble, and he got it.

Shiv Mukherjee is a former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

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