Democracies are anchored in the will of the people. This presumes, at the very least, that the people know what their will is or have been made aware of the consequences of their actions. Because democracy plays on a dumbed-down, lowest common denominator, this is often not the case.
A discussion on the eve of the Brexit merits recall. The question: what would have a more negative implication for the world, a Brexit in Europe or a Trump victory in the US? The answer, overwhelmingly, was the Brexit. Many believed, prior to the referendum, in a close call in favour of ‘remain’, as the outcome would mean ‘business as usual’. Some of us were less sanguine, however, not because we predicted Brexit, but because a ‘referendum’ is dangerous at the best of times.
Delusional politicians frame the proposition to be voted, most often, in rather simplistic terms. Gullible voters, or at least some of them, participate without a full understanding of the matter or an application of mind. Thus, 52 per cent decided to ‘leave’. Clearly, there had to be fundamental issues responsible for their alienation.
This became evident when the better educated, economically well-off and young people, with the most at stake, voted to ‘remain’. That would also have been the case had the verdict been in favour of ‘remain’. Nearly half the population still had serious grievances. Sensible and mature politics should try to address those grievances rather than inflict further damage through self-mutilation. Both Brexit and Trump feed on the same anxiety.
Voters in favour of the Brexit were not sufficiently aware that putting a brake on the number of Poles who can work in the UK cannot co-exist with the economic benefits of a large single market. The verdict appears irreversible and could be followed by Scotland asserting its independence quite soon, and possibly Northern Ireland thereafter.
In a powerful opinion piece for the New York Times on June 29, 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that the Brexit is actually a wake-up call against the present policies of globalization. The British, he argued, are not the only ones suffering. The globalized economy, established and maintained by the world’s economic elite, is failing people everywhere.
The world’s wealthiest 62 persons own as much wealth as the bottom half of its population – around 3.6 billion people. The top one per cent owns more wealth than the whole of the bottom 99 per cent. One could argue, as several have done, that this is somewhat simplistic. It probably is. The Brexit, nonetheless, is a wake-up call, a reflection of the social exclusion that is an inevitable result of policies that produce inequality. This, however, requires corrective action, not the overthrow of an entire system. It requires course-correction and not self-amputation.
At the heart of the Brexit fiasco is delusional politics and at the centre of it is the delusional politician. A referendum on the matter was not at all necessary. It was a short-sighted response against Euro-scepticism for electoral gains. It was similar delusional politics that advocated the “use of force” and the “arming of rebels” in Libya, which led to the country’s eventual unravelling — and the same accounts for the current mess in Syria.
The actions of these advocates resulted in the desperate westward migration that followed. The fear of this inward migration, even when legitimate, has now culminated in the Brexit and the self-mutilation of the United Kingdom. This is what may be termed Post-Imperial Stress Disorder.
Markets do not like uncertainty even when they can recover. The advocates of the Brexit, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, may have won the referendum, but they do not have the administrative acumen to deal with its fallout. The barely concealed glee, or the “delicious irony”, as some of my friends have chosen to term it, regarding the Brexit among some sections of educated Indians may also turn out to be short-lived. Many of them have their historical consciousness solely shaped by colonial actions and pontification.
A ‘referendum’, no matter how many people vote in it, is not one of democracy’s better products. Neither is a “plebiscite”. Third-party mediation, suggested by Britain’s Labour Party in 1995 to resolve the India-Pakistan divide, is also a lousy idea. A bad electoral verdict, on the other hand, can always be corrected.
The UK today has the world’s fifth largest economy and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It was never “a third-rate power” as Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral described it in 1997. Even a truncated United Kingdom will be a force in global politics. The cost of the adjustment could, however, be painful.
The people of Britain deserve better political leadership. Yet, this may not be forthcoming in the short run.