Jun 29 2016

Brexit and Democracy

By Mary Kaldor

320px-PalaceOfWestminsterAtNightThe vote to leave Europe seems to have set off a spate of events spinning in different and dangerous directions. The two main political parties are falling apart. Scottish politicians are already a tabling a second referendum on the independence of Scotland. Sinn Fein politicians are talking about a referendum on a united Ireland. European leaders are calling for haste in separating Britain from the rest of Europe – a haste that will not insulate them from what has happened in Britain and indeed may have the opposite consequences from what they intended.

To me, it feels like the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the events that led to the First World War, where every wrong step contributed to the next wrong step. No-one can assume that these processes of disentanglement will be amicable or smooth. Already hate crime is on the rise in Britain.

The general consensus is that this was a ‘democratic moment’ and that we have to respect a democratic decision. But what does that mean? Certainly it was a populist moment. But surely democracy is about reasoned debate and constitutionalism. This was a failure of our institutions and our unwritten constitution. The vote was called not in response to popular demand but in response to internal differences within the Tory party. The ‘rules’ were ‘agreed’ by the Tory majority in the House of Commons. Commonwealth citizens were allowed to vote but not European citizens resident in Britain who are allowed to vote in local elections and European parliamentary elections. People over the age of 16 were allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum  but not in the EU referendum. And who decided on a simple majority? In most countries with a written constitution, changes of this magnitude require a much bigger majority as well as the agreement of all major regions.

Above all, the debate was conducted on the basis of lies, which the Leave campaign now admit to be lies. They admit that the £350million a week sent to Brussels is not exactly right and that the money will not be spent on the NHS. They admit that they will not be able to control immigration and that the famous ‘breaking point’ poster was misleading. Yet there is no way of calling them to account. On the contrary they are the winners.

Perhaps the most troubling statement that was repeated over and over again was this phrase, ‘take back control’. It is not to the EU that we have lost control. Actually it is not clear how much control ‘we’ as citizens have ever had.  But if we have ‘lost control’ it is to the multinational corporations, the financial whizzes on their laptops, climate change, conflicts and poverty in the other parts of the world, and a host of other phenomena associated with globalization.

As it turns out, our best hope of being able to influence the decisions that affect our lives is through an institution like the European Union.  Take migration, for example. We live in a world of mobility where extreme poverty and violence is pushing people towards the North. Controlling our borders will not stop the flow; it will only lead to tragedies in the channel like the tragedies we currently observe in the Mediterranean. We can only manage migration through global co-operation.

There is a demand for devolution so that decisions closer to the citizen can be taken at local and regional levels. Devolution is supposed to be a way of ‘taking back control’ at local levels. Sadiq Kahn is already demanding greater powers for London for example. But devolution is only meaningful if we are also part of an institution like the European Union that protects us from the bads of globalisation, that taxes multinational corporations, that controls financial speculation, or that upholds environmental standards.

So how can we extricate ourselves from this seemingly unstoppable dangerous spiral of events? If we recognise that this was an illegitimate way of making such a momentous decision, then we need to develop an alternative genuinely democratic process – one in which it might or might not be possible to reverse the decision. First of all, parliament must not invoke Article 50. The referendum is not legally binding as Geoffrey Robertson spelled out in The Guardian. If the vote was not democratic, there is no moral argument for doing something that the majority of MPs oppose. But there is of course a political argument. While some of the people who voted to leave are already regretting their vote, there are many people who voted to leave who are angry and alienated and will become more so if what they see as their ‘victory’ is overturned by Parliament. The Brexit vote has exposed a deeply divided and polarised country.

So for political reasons, there needs to be a genuinely democratic and inclusive process of decision-making. That process needs to be partly procedural. It might involve a general election and eventually a second referendum, based on fairer rules agreed by a cross-party mechanism. But it also needs to involve a political consultation – rationally rebutting and debating the arguments of the leave campaign, especially the notion of taking back control. The Remain campaign never engaged with the Leave arguments; they merely stressed the economic consequences, which were treated as fear mongering. They did not take the anger and alienation seriously. It needs to include a discussion about inequality in our society and how it should be addressed as well as how to preserve our public institutions like the NHS, the BBC and the universities. It has to encompass both our constitutional arrangements and how to bring about a social and more democratic Europe.

Where are the politicians making points such as these? At the moment of our greatest crisis, most of them have descended into internal squabbling. It is only on the email or in blogs and op-eds that arguments such as these are being made. No wonder the many who supported Leave did so because they were fed up with the political class. How can we demand that our politicians come together and sensibly think through and navigate this perilous moment? Those of us who care about the future of our country and of Europe  need to press their MPs not to invoke Article 50 and to initiate a genuinely democratic process. In many Tory marginals the remain majority is higher than their electoral majority: surely people in those constituencies can convince their MPs of the need to rethink the legitimacy of the Brexit vote and to initiate a process that can help to overcome the polarisation and division it has exposed.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics. It is re-posted, with a different title, from openDemocracy under a Creative Commons 4.0 license and with personal permission from the author.


Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of both the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit and the Justice and Security Research Programme at the London School of Economics.


Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

The UK is Reaping What the British Media Have Been Sowing for a Long Time

Will the Real Project Fear Please Stand Up? 

Defenestrations: (Un)Framing the EU Referendum Debate, Part I

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7 Responses to Brexit and Democracy

  1. Trafford says:

    Having ignored democracy in Ireland, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Denmark in previous referenda, suddenly democracy has become sacrosanct. But are UK voters (13% of the EU population) not also European voters? The EU clearly doesn’t think so – rather than listening to them they are dismissed as wrong and simply a UK problem. The reaction of the EU has basically vindicated the Leave voter. They were not listened to by the EU before the vote and they are not listened to now.

    The EU knows full well that with such a weak “Leave” mandate it could easily offer even just a fig leaf to the UK which would convince a further 2% of the electorate to change its mind (as they did with Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty which was defeated by over 53% first time round). Indeed various polls have suggested that somewhere between 5 and 20% of Leave voters would vote differently if the referendum were held again. The EU is essentially ridding itself of a problem by allowing the UK walk away. It looks increasingly as though it has obtained exactly the result it wanted. With the various threats made before the vote calculated to stoke nationalistic pride and the barely contained glee from Guy Verhofstadt, Donald Tusk and others in the European Parliament when sanctimoniously extolling democracy after the result.

    The EU understandably wishes to ensure stability in the EU and avoid contagion. To achieve this they could either make efforts to prevent the UK from leaving or ensure that the UK pays such a high price for leaving that no other disillusioned nations are tempted to follow. The EU is equally understandably increasingly fed up with making exceptions to please the British. However, there were a number of pan-European issues debated in the referendum for which affect all EU countries such as the lack of accountability, the lack of control of the budget and explosion in cost of the EC. Ironically, now that the UK is walking towards the exit these reforms are becoming more likely but could so easily be used as a peace-offering to the UK electorate and reverse the result. The more thorny issue of immigration which was important to many voters (but certainly not half the population) might take longer to debate but could be debated from within the EU rather than requiring a hard exit.

    The EU’s alternative is in effect to ensure that the UK exit is unsuccessful. This strikes me as both risky and destructive – there are unfortunate precedents for the attempted humiliation of a European country in the not too distant past, but (more optimistically) the failure of the UK is by no means a certainty! A safer way to ensure EU cohesion is surely to listen to and learn from the electorate rather than ejecting it.

  2. LastSurvivor says:

    Leaving the EU is only a first step. To put things in a way that even the most brain-dead, arrogant politician/academic/corporate idiot might understand, the real world has finally spoken and will no longer be silenced. This situation has been on it’s way ever since the Thatcher era began in 1979, ushering in the entire ethos of “me first and to hell with all others” that has characterised British attitudes to all aspects of life ever since. Those on the receiving end of such constant verbal and moral detritus have finally made it plain that enough is enough. Whatever role or position in life a human being fulfils, he or she is entitled to expect treatment suitable to a human being, not that of a meaningless cog in an overly complicated and ultimately useless machine. Yes, politics is falling apart, our previous parliamentary system has finally begun it’s death throes, thank God. Those who retain any form of morality will hopefully be making certain that ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ cannot and will never see the light of day again. We have taken a first step towards political and social freedom after far too many years being treated like mentally subnormal toddlers. More changes are coming – very radical changes I don’t doubt – and they will come very soon. The Britain of 2030 will hopefully be as far from the Britain of 2016 as it is humanly possible to get.

  3. Nat Palazzo says:

    The Global Elitists were caught with their pants down, I’m afraid. After years of complacency, reality caught up with them. They have acted with impunity, and are now paying the price. It seems that Remain is more worried than Leave. The Leavers are made of sterner stuff. They may be intellectually inferior, lesser paid, lower IQ’d, and less ambitious, but they have the courage and bravery that the Elitists lack.

  4. M Vine says:

    “[The Remain campaign] did not take the anger and alienation seriously.”

    It’s that very anger and alienation that will be multiplied a hundredfold if the establishment reverses the vote, which is basically what you are calling for in this article (and I say this as a Remain supporter).

    Doing so would embolden the far right and create massive social unrest, at the very least.

    Perhaps you think this is an acceptable price to pay for avoiding the economic consequences of Brexit and tightening up UK democracy. But I think this article should be clear on that. Reversing the vote would not be without grave consequences.

  5. Roberto Orsi says:

    It seems to me somewhat ungenerous to say that “the vote was called not in response to popular demand but in response to internal differences within the Tory party”. The vote was made possible by the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which was approved by the House of Commons by a majority of 544 to 53, only ONE Labour MP and the SNP were against. This is certainly an act of representative democracy. There was surely a strong popular demand for the referendum, certainly among conservative voters, who have the relative majority in the country, not to mention the 3.8 million people who voted UKIP at the 2015 General Elections. The result itself and the high turnout of the EU referendum shows that the question was rather legitimate, going far beyond internal disputes within the Conservatives. Leave actually won because of the votes coming from progressivist areas, whose support for Remain was significantly weaker than expected. Even in Greater London, 41% of votes went to Leave.
    Not triggering Article 50 at this point would devastate the political capital of the British ruling class to a point of no return. It will only make the problem bigger and far more dangerous in the future.
    I am afraid we are now seeing pre-civil war conditions in a number of EU countries (France is perhaps the most worrying situation, as even prime minister Valls explicitly stated the risk of war), the consequences of decades of mismanagement. Dialogue is rapidly becoming impossible/futile. Be prepared.

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