The UK referendum on exiting the EU reminds us that democracy has its advantages and limitations. Although there was an unusual record 70%+ turnout that resulted in a 52% decision to exit the EU, we learn that on the following day, the most searched phrases on the Google in the UK were phrases such as, “What is Brexit?” and “What is the EU?” This leads to the sobering realization that the vote to exit the EU was likely made by a voter population that was substantially uniformed about the full implications of their decision, and was drawn to the vote by something other than a comprehensive understanding about living under the auspices of the European Union.
Democracy, defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives” grants eligible people a right to vote. Interestingly, it does not require a responsibility to be informed about the topic on which, or the individual for whom, they’re voting.
The case of Brexit made this abundantly clear.
The challenge involved in running a multi-national collective such as the European Union is not well understood by the masses across the continent or throughout the world. An attempt to create a single market through standardized laws and a shared economic framework is one of the greatest political/economic experiments ever undertaken in modern history. There were naysayers from the start, and it has been fraught with significant challenges, but an attempt to create a unified entity to compete in a global world with powerhouses like the US and China was, and still remains, an admirable vision. Given the complexities around the topics of trade, security, and immigration (yes, I separate the last two topics), there are very few voters who can truly grasp either the “enter” or “exit” EU decision. Therefore, many voted on the topic that seemed to matter the most to them, that of immigrants – and likely only certain types – as to whether or not it was desirable to open borders. Many believed that the issue was greatly tied to security (although I’d guess that few pub conversations went deep into the relationship that the EU has had with organizations like NATO over the years, but likely around whether “certain people” should be allowed into the country). I would venture to guess that very few voters based their decision on a strong understanding of the economic complexities around managing multiple economies, balance of trade, and the governance of such an organization, and how it was affecting member states. Herein lies the real issue – voters shouldn’t be expected to know all this. That’s why democracies elect leaders to make decisions, and to make things work.
Democracies were set out to create a form of government for a large number of people where selected leaders represented them in decision-making. In Ancient Greece where democracy was born, it was believed that the best way to represent all voices – majority and minority – was by selecting those deemed to be wise enough and honest enough to serve the collective. From the beginning, leadership was key, and I would posture that wisdom and integrity are still the most important traits for leaders of a democracy to possess.
In the absence of feeling that those elected are performing their duties well, a wider population may feel, from time to time, that the system is not working. In the case of Brexit, the strains of EU membership had been growing for years, and the recent decision to open borders to immigrants during a time of significant economic challenge seemed a critical moment in the EU relationship, and some in the UK felt they had lost control of decisions that impacted their every day life. People felt that those they elected to Parliament were not influencing the right decisions that impacted their daily lives, and those who ran the EU were not people who they had selected. One can argue whether this was inherent in the construct of the EU or whether it was due to other factors, but one thing is for certain: The confidence that the people in the UK had for those making decisions impacting their daily lives was lost. In times like this, the right thing to do is to examine those whose role it is to make the right decisions. Do they possess the wisdom and integrity to represent the wider population? If not, the most important decision in a democracy must be made: To change out leadership.
Calling for a mass referendum on a topic so complex that no average person can grasp the full extent of the implications of “Remain” or “Leave”, was a poorly calculated decision by David Cameron. He took the leadership role of managing the EU situation out of the hands of those theoretically most qualified to make the decision, and put it in the hands of an emotion-driven constituency (although Parliament still has the final decision, but doubtful they will vote differently). In swooped the politicos with their agendas, fear-mongers took over the airwaves, emotions took over the conversations, and the vote soon became one of “let’s get our country back” rather than “how do we make this work”. The absence of strong leadership in the UK government resulted in a decision that surprised everyone.
Cameron’s miscalculation is one that is shared by politicians (and idealists) everywhere. He believed that when people had the opportunity to make an informed decision about a specific topic, they would take the time to learn the facts, and would be wise enough to weigh all underlying and impacted variables before making a decision. Unfortunately, throughout history, (and particularly in today's world of 24/7 communications dominated by the loudest voice, the one who buys the most airtime, or the one who has most Twitter followers), this is a naïve assumption, guided by a lack of understanding of how people in the world get their information and formulate opinions. The decision to leave or remain in the EU is a decision that the UK leadership should be making. They are now informed by a public referendum that may or may not have been made with a clear understanding of all issues. Regardless of how one may feel about the choice to remain or leave, one thing seems clear to me -- the need for a referendum was the outcome of poor leadership by many parties.
History has witnessed watershed moments when people have been unhappy with leadership of a nation or region. In many cases, military coups result in toppled dictatorships. Democracy allows for an organized transition to a controlling party to take the helm, but assumes that people show up to vote for leadership, and that those who they elect deserve their positions because of their wisdom and integrity. To the extent that democracy’s leaders live up to these timeless expectations, it will remain a form of government that can sustain.