Lots of complaints on Facebook about people not respecting the democratic verdict and the demonization of Leave voters, etc.
I would like to ask such people whether they would advocate more referendums on important political decisions. Just think, direct democratic control could be exercised over key policy areas such as the building of new hospitals, levels of taxation, the death penalty etc. Voting could be easily done on the internet, and local referendums could be held on local issues.
The reason this system has never been tried is because it would soon descend into farce. Voters are simply not qualified to make decisions in specialized policy areas. Their level of technical knowledge/general education tends to be inferior to politicians/technical experts, and the decisions made in such referendums would be very bad ones. There would also be widespread apathy, and special interests/the fanatical would soon manipulate these votes. It is for this reason that political theorists caution against such votes. Voting just once every 4/5 years guarantees that the interests of citizens are represented, yet government by a political elite ensures that important decisions are made by qualified experts. Political scientists therefore refer to Western countries as ‘liberal democracies’ rather than merely ‘democracies’. The word ‘liberal’ is crucial; it recognizes the existence of elites that safeguard important individual rights.
On Thursday the kind of exercise that political theorists warn against took place in the UK. The level of knowledge/reflection of the average voter was appalling. I noticed this on the street when I was campaigning, and anecdotes I have heard in recent days confirm this impression. ‘Fucking P***s’, thinking Boris Johnson is funny, not going to Europe on holiday, the Germans shooting your grandad and hating David Cameron (all real voter motivations that I have heard about) are not valid reasons for leaving the EU, rather they are indicative of straight lack of education/appalling bigotry. Many Leave voters may not have been motivated by considerations that were this crude, but my impression is that their rationales were only a little more sophisticated. Certainly only a small minority of Brexiters seem to have cast their vote on grounds that I would respect, i.e. a considered desire to regain sovereignty in specific policy areas, dislike of austerity and the CAP, impact of specific regulations on small businesses.
What took place on Thursday was not an exercise in liberal democracy – rather it was a plebiscite that descended into a circus of ignorance and xenophobia.
Only a few weeks of campaigning remain and I thought it’d be interesting to jot down some thoughts on the campaign so far. Hope they are of interest to someone!
1/ The discrepancy in the view of experts is embarrassing (for Brexiters)
Before the referendum it was admittedly clear the way that most academic economists/political scientists were going to go, but the extent to which this has happened has taken me by surprise. More than 90% of economists are in favour of remaining and, though I have not seen statistics, my impression is that a similar proportion of political scientists who study EU related topics hold this view. Academic colleagues of mine who have been organizing Brexit vs Remain expert events across the country even tell me that, such is the shortage of academics who back Brexit, undergraduates have been assuming the role of Brexit ‘experts’ in these events. It goes without saying that this is deeply embarrassing for Brexiters; the figures involved are indeed reminiscent of debates on creation v evolution/climate change v non-climate change.
2/ I can now say that I hate UKIP
I have obviously never agreed with their programme or liked them, but before this referendum my view of UKIP was that they were mainly eccentric backwoodsmen with peculiar views. The things I have seen/heard in the course of the campaign mean my attitude has hardened. Many of the UKIP politicians/supporters I have met have struck me as cynical xenophobes who are deeply unpleasant on a personal level, and I am afraid the campaign UKIP has run has been based on the spread of mistruths and demagogy. I hate them.
3/ This campaign is leading to permanent divisions
I made point 2 to my mother on the phone yesterday (she probably won’t mind me writing that she agreed!), and she also remarked that it is indicative of deepening divisions in our country. This is true on both sides; I doubt Brexiters will contradict me if I say that many of them have begun to hate certain Remainers. One of the legacies of this debate will therefore be a more divided country and it goes without saying that this is not a healthy development.
Current divisions also have deeper implications for future political fault lines. In Poland people who are against the political establishment in general have long been labelled antysystemowy (anti-system), and this seems to be a good label for the coalition of groups in the Brexit camp. Opposition to the current system, liberal use of facts and admiration for Vladimir Putin after all unites figures like Farage, Johnson and Galloway and it is more than likely they will make common cause again in the future. It would also not be unfair to put Jeremy Corbyn (who would likely be a Brexiter were he not Labour party leader) in the anti-system category.
4/ Levels of public knowledge are very disappointing
This may strike people as a snobbish thing to say, but I’m afraid that this is my impression. One example of this is the mass of people who think that all immigration is a result of EU membership; this is of course, as anyone remotely familiar with current affairs knows, not even approaching true. At a rather more advanced level, most people also (understandably) have little knowledge of how the EU institutions work. If I hear another person bring the European Court of Human Rights into this debate (this institution has nothing to do with the EU – it is part of the separate Council of Europe) I think I will scream!