Friday July 01, 2022

Populism over pragmatism

July 04, 2016

Charles the First once said, “Democracy is the power of equal votes for unequal minds”. This saying now echoes across Europe after Britain decided to exit the European Union over literally a split vote, with 48 percent voting to remain and 52 percent voting to leave.

The margin of votes set to radically overhaul Britain’s economic and social relationship with its biggest regional partner and deepen fissures within the British Union was just four percent. Scotland and Northern Ireland unanimously voted to remain in the European Union, while Wales and England edged a little ahead voting to leave.

Brexit has sparked a resurgence of the debate over national identity in the United Kingdom, with the SNP-ruled Scottish government mulling another Independence vote and Northern Ireland’s ruling party calling for a referendum on a ‘United Ireland’.

To the world, the oldest parliamentary democracy has given a fresh lesson on the wisdom of the balance of powers, and the need of the executive and the citizenry to constantly keep each other in check. Brexit is only a reality because the British electorate was given power over something they do not fully grasp.

Elections to choose governments are a mixture of emotion and reason, where personalities, track records and controversies are in a constant tussle to deliver an outcome. The parties lay out clear policy outlines and promises, and the decision rests with the people.

A nation’s membership to organisations like the EU is a complicated and multi-layered economic and social arrangement. Elected lawmakers better understand the advantages, disadvantages and ramifications of an exit than the common citizen.

When the Brexit vote was placed before the public, the political pitches pushed the emotional argument to supersede the practical.

 The EU vote is not similar to a referendum on let’s say gay marriage, which Ireland cleared via a unanimous vote. The question posed to the people of Ireland was not a technical one, but a moral one - a human rights issue which citizens have a greater understanding of than economic regulations, legal frameworks and their impact.

Consider this – in the aftermath of a terror attack, will any nation hold a referendum over the entry of immigrants or refugees from Muslim countries? Will any nation ever weigh geo-politics in the court of public opinion and hold a referendum on scrapping a nuclear weapons arsenal? Of course not.

These are complicated issues with far reaching socio-political consequences, which cannot be decided via the whims of the masses. Sentiments always possess the power to subdue the pragmatic.

The two key arguments that pushed the Brexit vote are control over immigration, namely an end to the free movement of labour from European nations, and safeguarding taxpayers money from being spent on the EU bureaucracy, with a focus on ‘fresh funds’ for the National Health Service and other social sectors.

These narratives fuelled an emotional pitch, where the ‘Leave’ campaign leaders of the UK Independence Party and the Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson clearly hid the reality of the inevitable uncertainty surrounding a delayed exit. They didn’t tell voters that invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would push Britain into two years of negotiations with European nations, kicking Britain out of the EU single market, even forcing it to renegotiate pre-existing trade agreements with around 50 EU trading partners.

They didn’t state that post the invocation of EU talks there will be two years of insecurity over the state of the economy, sparking a volatile market and currency fluctuations as well as capital outflows, damaging big and small businesses across Britain. In fact, the main voices of the ‘Leave’ campaign are not even top decision-makers in the Conservative government. They can’t even suggest policies or effectively deliver promises along the lines of their pitch.

Coupled with the leadership crisis sparked by Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation after backing the ‘Remain’ campaign and rumblings in the devolved governments, Brexit has landed the British union in choppy waters.

John F Kennedy once said that, “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The debate around Britain’s EU membership has not been rational, but marked by pure politicking. Britain will gain no significant advantage beyond a self-righteous notion of sovereignty, yet the political and economic turbulence has placed the nation in a violent state of flux. No referendum is legally binding.

The absence of a unanimous vote should prompt the British government to take up the issue of EU membership in parliament and allow the House to take a final call after a fierce round of debates. A tectonic shift of such a magnitude in Britain should not rest on a sliver of votes. The stakes are too high.

The writer is senior news editor at CNN-News18.


Twitter: @Jamwalthefirst