Brexit: Democracy at Work?
Posted June 28, 2016on:
I arrived in London the day after the results of the British referendum. I found many of my friends in a state of shock and dismay. The Brexit vote has revealed the deep fissures in British society- between London and the rest of the country, between economic classes, between urban and rural populations, between Scots and English, and even between generations (the young voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU).
The vast majority of non-Europeans are unaffected by what has happened here. But what has been most troubling- indeed horrifying- was the way the political campaign was fought. It mirrored the vicious obscurantism of the current American presidential campaign.
The “Remain” camp, led by the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron, exaggerated the security threats and economic fall-out of leaving the EU. But the “Leave” camp, led by the ambitious Boris Johnson, traded on blatant lies which the tabloid media swallowed wholesale and sold its gullible readers. Lies such as: more than 60 per cent of British legislation emanates from Brussels; an invasion of Poles, Rumanians and Bulgarians (not to mention refugees from North Africa) who will be taking British jobs and enjoying social benefits (while neglecting to speak of the millions of Britons living in the rest of Europe and doing the same); the imminent entry of Turkey into the EU (unlikely, at least for another decade); the UK paying 350 million pounds a week to the EU (while neglecting to mention that more than half that returns in the form of rebates).
The Leave campaign, in other words, openly exploited the racist elements in British society. It played to the jingoism prevalent among older Britons, evoking nostalgic fantasies of an island superpower. The glaring social inequalities in Britain, which understandably fuel deep resentment among the poorer communities, were blamed on the EU and not on the biased austerity programs of the ruling Tory party. Unemployment caused, not by European migrant workers or refugees, but rather by globalisation and robotisation were scarcely addressed. “Taking back control” and “Independence Day” were the popular sound-bites of Johnson and his merry band of little-Englanders. In an age of climate change, international terrorism and technological globalization, these are meaningless slogans.
I am not enamoured with the EU. Quite apart from its unaccountable bureaucracy, it is an inward-looking club bent on building a Fortress Europe and ignoring its responsibilities to the rest of the world. But it has proved to be more effective than its member-states in checking the unethical activities of transnational technology giants and countering right-wing movements in Europe. If a nation-state believes that leaving is better than staying and reforming it from within it needs to give reasons more ethical and compelling than the fear of foreigners. (Ironic that a country which colonized half the world still lives in fear of foreigners).
Britain boasts of being the cradle of democracy. It has developed liberal institutions that other nations have sought to emulate. All the more disturbing, therefore, when both Britain and the USA present to the rest of the world an image of electoral politics that seems to glorify selfishness, racism, intolerance and wilful ignorance. I can imagine the leaders of China or North Korea rubbing their hands in glee, and telling their citizens languishing in local prisons: “You want democracy? Look at what is happening in the US and UK- do you want such men to rule over you?”
A referendum works on the assumption that all voting citizens will be well-informed about the issue that is under dispute. It presupposes a mass media that is truth-seeking and not merely free. And on an issue as serious in its long-term ramifications as whether or not to remain in the EU, it is important that a two-thirds or three-fifths majority be sought rather than a simple majority. I am surprised that David Cameron did not consider this with his legal and constitutional advisors before he called for a referendum.
Isn’t it an illusion to think that we can have a democratic society based purely on constitutions and formal procedures, without paying any attention to the moral formation of individual citizens? The kind of people we are -and become- shapes the kind of society we have (though it is also true that the kind of society we live in shapes what we become).
Civility and moral integrity are the presuppositions of public life, not their product. For instance, the parties to an agreement must already have a sense of what is right, and a willingness to abide by it, even when it is in their own interests not to do so. A contract is no contract at all if it is kept only when it is convenient to do so. Also, if elected public officials cannot be trusted to be concerned with the common good, the louder voices in society will prevail.
The quest for good governance begins with a sense of moral outrage at the undeserved exclusion and humiliation of other human beings. Our moral sensibilities are nurtured principally through our families, schools, and religious communities and institutions. Where most families are dysfunctional, schools merely tuition-factories, universities servants of corporate interests, and religious institutions become inward-looking and self-serving, the roots of a well-functioning democracy wither.