The Emerging Lessons of Brexit for Aspiring Democracies

The following first appeared on Al Rasub, a Dubai-based news website.


The recent referendum resulting in a 52-48 vote for the UK to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) is causing substantial political and economic ripple effects across the world, which are unlikely to end soon. Although the vote was close in percentage, it was decisive in raw numbers, with 1.3 million votes separating the two sides. Indeed, the 17.4 million votes in favour of Brexit were the most ever cast for anything or anyone in a British election.

However, writing as someone who wants the UK to remain in the EU, I am struck by the many different levels on which the very idea of democracy has been put to the test by this referendum. Four in particular stand out. I organize them in a list because each is quite striking in its own right, and taken together their interrelations are complex. At the end, I shall make some general remarks about the distinctive nature of British democracy, whose weaknesses the Brexit vote reveals.

  1. Immediately after the polls closed, the generational character of the voting demographics became apparent. The older the voter, the likelier to vote. Moreover, the older the voter, the likelier to favour Brexit. Yet, the younger the voter, the longer s/he will need to live with the consequences of the vote. The default UK response has been to blame young people for not voting, especially since Brexit would not have won had the turnout of the young been at the levels of their elders. However, one might also take seriously that in the future votes should be weighted inversely to age, since those who are likely to be around longer have a larger stake in the outcome. As it stands, the Brexit vote manifests a geriatric version of democracy, in which the old have a disproportionate say over matters in which the young are mainly affected.
  2. The failure of the party-based system of democracy is striking. No major UK party has called for a second referendum on EU membership since the last (and only) one took place in 1975. However, about twenty years ago, the UK Independence Party (‘UKIP’) was formed expressly with this purpose, scapegoating the EU for various socio-economic problems that continued to plague a seemingly prosperous UK. UKIP gradually gathered support, receiving four million votes in the 2015 general election and coming close to winning seats from both the Tory and Labour Parties. Mindful of UKIP’s rise, Prime Minister David Cameron promised an EU referendum in the 2015 Tory Party manifesto, which he then duly delivered, thinking that the result would defeat the ‘Brexiteers’ once and for all. Of course, events proved him wrong. Meanwhile the Labour Party responded to its 2010 general election defeat to Cameron (after three successive wins under Tony Blair) by involving party members more directly in the selection of the leader. This has led to a schism between Labour parliamentarians and ordinary members, as manifested in its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a retro-socialist who is much beloved by the party hard core but loathed by his fellow parliamentarians, who are more concerned with winning elections, which involves appealing to ‘floating voters’. The ongoing turmoil meant that Labour failed to mount a coherent campaign against Brexit.
  3. The profound failure of expertise to influence voter opinion was striking, even though the referendum campaign was rather long by British standards (four months). 90% of UK academia, all the major business leaders and world politicians wanted the UK to remain in the EU. Moreover, they made their voices heard very clearly. However, their efforts were successfully spun by opponents as ‘Project Fear’, since most of the expert arguments were framed in terms of the benefits that would be lost or put at risk by leaving the EU. In contrast, it would seem that 52% of the British electorate did not feel these ‘benefits’ sufficiently. Their experience of the EU was in terms of migrants taking jobs from natives and the sense that the UK paid too much into the EU without getting enough in return. Both impressions – which really drove the electoral outcome – were false. Indeed, nine of the ten UK regions that benefit the most from the EU’s redistributive style of finance voted for Brexit and now are likely to suffer most in the aftermath. The irony of the situation is captured well in the British expression, ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’. In effect, the Brexiteers flattered the electorate into thinking that they knew more of the UK’s relationship to the EU than they really did. Indeed, they explicitly asked people to trust their feelings over the opinions of experts far removed from their everyday lives.
  4. But most striking of all is the ‘populism’ that has allowed the Brexit vote to trump parliamentary authority. From a strictly constitutional standpoint, the UK is a representative democracy: Parliament, not the people, is sovereign. This means that a referendum has the legal standing of a consultative exercise, the outcome of which Parliament may choose to enact, subject to further deliberation or outright reject. However, during the campaign, much – too much – was made of the EU referendum as expressing the ‘will of the people’. Indeed, this rhetorical framing helps to explain the unprecedented voter turnout. However, given that roughly three-quarters of current Members of Parliament — across all parties and regions — wanted the UK to remain in the EU, they could easily halt the momentum towards Brexit. They may still do that, but it is telling that they are not yet raising that possibility. One suspects that parliamentarians are eager to enrol ‘the people’ in however they dispose of the Brexit vote because they doubt their own legitimacy to make judgements on behalf of their constituents and the national interest.

The UK is the world’s oldest major democracy – but one without a written constitution. Writing as a US national who has lived and thrived in the UK for the past quarter-century, I find it a marvel to behold. But its luck may have run out. UK parliamentary politics is basically a circulation of elites who are very clever but who treat ‘the people’ as a resource in a long power game. It is to the elites’ collective advantage to keep the rules of the game as loose as possible, which explains the ad hoc character of UK legislation. It is to the great credit of these elites that they have forged a welfare state that exceeds the expectations of what even liberal US politicians normally entertain. However, it was a fatal mistake for David Cameron to ‘break frame’ and voluntarily cede sovereignty from Parliament to ‘the people’ in the EU referendum. A written constitution would have never allowed Cameron to be so reckless on a matter so fundamental to the UK’s parliamentary democracy. What happens next remains to be seen.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Social Theory, Sociological Craft, Sociologists of Crisis

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