Unwise voting

June 28, 2016


The writer, a former senator & federal minister is the author of Pathways.
The writer, a former senator & federal minister is the author of Pathways.

ONE of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies the UK used an inappropriate electoral system which enabled mere populism to distort the long-term vision of a mature democracy.

Even without a written constitution, a referendum with fundamental implications for the future of the country should have been determined by at least a two-third majority of votes, and not left to be decided by a narrow margin of less than 4pc. A simple majority is valid to enact normal, day-to-day legislation. But it is inadequate to decide on a subject that has far-reaching dimensions embracing not just narrow national interests but larger regional and global values.

The physical proximity of the UK to Europe is an unchangeable reality and related links will always remain. However, the result by only a thin margin will have very thick repercussions. Several are already evident. New uncertainty in the financial sector. Plunges in the pound’s value. Big dips in stock markets. New unknowns for mainland Europeans working in the island country and vice versa. Unprecedented economic imponderables for the country, the continent and the world.

The major setback is to the concept of how to build formal structures for regional cooperation. Notwithstanding the crises that erupted in the EU in recent years comprising threats to the euro’s stability of the euro, ailing economies of Greece, Spain and Italy, tensions arising from the new influx of immigrants, the multiple institutions of cross-border cooperation which evolved in Europe over the past 40 years were innovative and direction-setting. Regional pacts in other continents looked towards the EU as an inspirational model.

The Brexit vote could have included the ‘renegotiate’ option.

Localised hostility against the centralised aspect of Brussels-based multilateral institutions fuelled the exit vote. But if the past few years distracted from admiration, the result of June 23 was a pulverising blow. It forces a reactive reappraisal of basic perspectives about the virtues of regional structures.

The small margin of the result also disproportionately magnifies the representative credentials of emerging xenophobic elements like the UK Independence Party. It encourages similar elements in France, Germany and elsewhere.

Still receiving a relatively low number of votes in the most recent general election in the UK, the Ukip has claimed undue credit for the referendum result. It will be encouraged to foster racism and anti-immigrant, anti-refugee passions. The fact that almost half the number who voted wanted the UK to remain in the EU is not given the weightage it deserves. Fortunately, there is a credible initiative to secure over one million signatures demanding a second referendum.

On a subject so significant, and taking advantage of the unwritten nature of the constitution, Prime Minister David Cameron should have sought prior consensus with other parties on at least a two-stage process instead of a one-off, keep it-or-break-it process.

For instance, initial consideration of both options, or even a third, of a new framework of terms for renegotiation with the EU by both houses of parliament. Only if consensus could not be achieved should the choice have then been put to a referendum. And not necessarily with something as potentially schismatic as ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ being the only choices. ‘Renegotiate’ could well have been a third choice. Some form of phased ratification should have been part of the agreed process before calling for the referendum.

To reflect as above is not to look for the horse that has already bolted from the stable. It is to decry the manner in which David Cameron approached such an important cross roads. As there were and are, strong contrary viewpoints within his own party, he should have tried harder and longer to resolve them first, instead of permitting even some of his own cabinet ministers to campaign for ‘leave’ while he himself stood for ‘remain’.

This was sheer incoherence and lack of cohesion masquerading as the liberalism and tolerance of democracy. This duality compounded confusion about even the ruling party’s actual position and spread emotive, rather than reasoned views about the EU.

The ‘leave’ campaign used exaggeration, hyperbole, incorrect figures and paranoia to produce a result that is unduly definitive and disruptive. As the UK, especially Scotland, and Europe and the rest of the world begin to consider the next stages and adjust to an entirely new situation, it is amusing to note the talk by the ‘leave’ supporters about restoring borders.

This is in a country that bothered so little about respecting the borders of other countries when it imposed colonial and imperial interests for centuries. It is also clear that the voting principles and processes of old democracies are not necessarily pertinent in a complex new world.

The writer, a former senator & federal minister is the author of Pathways.


Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2016