July 6, 2016
Updated: July 7

Shawwal 2, 1437

The National
Abu Dhabi

Divided by opinion: what does Brexit say
about the state of democracy?

By Alasdair Soussi

The political, economic and social fallout from Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union on June 23 continues to send shockwaves across the financial and political spectrum. As Britain’s 'Leave' campaig­ners celebrated their surprise victory – and the prospect of a UK dis­entang­led from EU rules and regulations after what is expected to be more than two years of negotiations – criticism mounted as to the ability of the British electorate to decide on such a seismic constitutional issue.

An online UK petition calling for a second referendum garnered more than four million signatures. Indeed, eyebrows were raised when Google re­vealed that the second most popular EU-related British information re­quest from the search engine – following the referendum result – was «What is the EU?»

No sooner was the final 52 to 48 per cent result announced than Con­ser­va­tive prime minister David Cameron, de-facto leader of the pro-EU 'Re­main' campaign, resigned. A new Conservative leader – and, in turn, Bri­tain’s next premier – is expected to be installed on September 9. «What we’re seeing now in the UK is a lot of emotion, especially from people who voted to stay [in the EU] questioning a lot of things,» says Thomas Lundberg, of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glasgow, Scotland, who added that this 'emotion' was «magnified by the shock that most of the polling towards the end was looking more like it was going to be a vote to stay [in the EU]».

«Some people are questioning whether the electorate knew what they were voting on ... or whether the UK parliament could overturn [the result] or whether there could be another referendum,» says Lundberg. «don’t think it’s wise to go down this route, especially nowadays when voters in democracies ... think that popular sovereignty means something.» Fi­nan­cial markets remain in turmoil, the British pound at one point hit a 31-year low against the US dollar, while the future of EU nationals living in the UK, and UK nationals resident in the EU, is uncertain. For many of Britain’s pro-Europeans wedded to the idea of a single European market and the freedom to travel, the country’s decision to quit the 28-member EU bloc represented a crisis not seen in recent British political history.

In the UK, political decisions have consumed the British public over the past two years. On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland voted against statehood by 55 to 45 per cent in the nation’s historic Scottish independence referendum. Last year, the UK general election delivered the first majority Conservative Party government since 1992, and in May this year voters across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland went to the polls for their national parliamentary and assembly elections.

Yet, while the British people are currently in the midst of suffering from 'voter fatigue' – after having to decide on so many political decisions, in­cluding two life-changing constitutional issues, within such a short time frame – other democracies are all too used to engaging their citizens in frequent popular decision-making. In contrast to Britain with its represen­tative democracy system, where citizens elect representatives to legis­late on their behalf, Switzerland’s form of direct democracy has emerged as one of the most curious and – for many – purest forms of political de­cision-making in the world.

In Switzerland, popular referendums, on everything from immigration po­licy to the extension of holidays, are voted on with regularity. Swiss vo­ters are entitled to contest an act of parliament and launch a re­fe­ren­dum, provided they gather 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the new law’s publication. And a 100,000-signature threshold must be met should the people of Switzerland wish to propose an amendment to the con­sti­tu­tion. It is a system of democracy that politics professor Georg Lutz of the Uni­versity of Lausanne says has «become part of Swiss political culture. People really believe in it, political parties believe in it and interest groups are very happy with it. For them, it’s just one means, among others, to influence decision-making.»

For Lutz, questioning the suitability of voters to decide on the likes of Britain’s EU membership is anathema to the democratic process and the rights of the citizenry to make personal judgements on issues affecting their future. «If you don’t trust people to make a Yes or No decision, or in the UK’s case, a Leave or Remain decision, how do you trust people to decide who their leaders are?» says the Swiss academic. «The funda­mentals of democracy are that people can take decisions… no matter how educated they are or how wealthy they are. That is a big achieve­ment. And if you don’t really trust voters to take decisions, then you are questioning the fundamentals of democracy.»

Lutz says the Swiss electorate has rarely quibbled with the democratic legitimacy of a referendum vote – no matter how close the result. And Andreas Gross, a former member of the Swiss Parliament, says the cur­rent questions of legitimacy surrounding Britain’s decision to exit from the EU are largely based on the UK’s infrequent use of the direct demo­cracy-style popular referendum. He also questions the balance of Bri­tain’s democratic political system vis-à-vis the country’s Brexit vote.

«When you establish a well-balanced, finely-tuned direct democracy you will decide very rarely on super big issues which have such deep, large and dramatic consequences like Brexit,» says Gross, a renowned poli­ti­cal scientist. «You would instead vote on immigration, decentralisation, a more inclusive regional and rural policy, the increase of the social state, a more worker-friendly economy, a more citizen-friendly tax policy – all policy elements which went wrong in the eyes of many British people and which united them to vote for a Brexit.»

That said, and with Swiss voter turnout often on the low side, is there such a thing as too much democracy? Yes, says Lundberg. He has the view that «people definitely want to be involved [in the democratic pro­cess], they want to have their say, they want to be heard, but it doesn’t mean that everybody wants to be an expert on everything and constantly be involved all the time». Indeed, such weighty democratic decisions can also have unintended consequences. The Brexit vote may have pro­pel­led the UK towards the EU exit door after a decades-long association, but it has also put two other British political controversies front and cent­re. While England and Wales recorded majority Leave votes, Scot­land and Northern Ireland voted Remain, with the former registering a hefty 62 per cent support for the EU.

These results prompted Northern Ireland’s nationalist deputy first minis­ter Martin McGuinness to call for an Irish unity poll between it and EU-member, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland’s nationalist first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to state that a second Scottish independence refe­ren­dum was now “highly likely". The prospect of Scotland – the UK’s se­cond-largest constituent nation – returning to the polls for another say on its constitutional future was given credibility when several opinion polls following the Brexit vote recorded majorities for independence.

«These consequences are ones that many people might not have thought through completely – and the [British] government didn’t think some of these things through and 'Brexiteers' didn’t think these things through either,» says Lundberg. «So, when it comes to Scotland, I am starting to think that there’s a possibility that we will see another inde­pen­dence referendum.» Whether it is Britain’s representative democracy or Switzerland’s direct democracy, no one political system has all the answers. While UK voters were given a genuine democratic opportunity to decide on a big constitutional issue, some disgruntled Remain sup­por­ters maintain that voters were almost duped into advocating a course of action that, despite protestations to the contrary, is unlikely to be re­versed.

And even in Switzerland, with its democratic-to-the-max form of political engagement, flaws are present. Low voter turnout and, as Gross opines, the propensity of the better-off and better educated in Swiss society to engage in the democratic process more often than the less well-off and less educated, «makes those who participate not always very repre­sen­ta­tive for all those who are [impacted] by a decision, and this is demo­cratically a real problem».

Yet, democracy – whether in Britain, Switzerland or elsewhere – is all about rights. And, for that, the last word goes to Lutz. «If you would ask [a Swiss voter], 'You didn’t participate [in a particular vote], so do you think we should have less direct democracy?', they wouldn’t say, 'Yes!'. They still like their rights, even if they don’t use them.»

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist who has worked across Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

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