Britain’s Democratic Failure by Kenneth Rogoff - Project Syndicate
In terms of durability and conviction of preferences, most societies place greater hurdles in the way of a couple seeking a divorce than Prime Minister David Cameron’s government did on the decision to leave the EU.
Sat Jun 25 12:26:56 2016 - permalink -
This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence – far greater even than amending a country’s constitution (of course, the United Kingdom lacks a written one) – has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.
Mind you, citizens of the West are blessed to live in a time of peace: changing circumstances and priorities can be addressed through democratic processes instead of foreign and civil wars. But what, exactly, is a fair, democratic process for making irreversible, nation-defining decisions
The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. Modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles.
The real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was not that British leaders dared to ask their populace to weigh the benefits of membership against the immigration pressures it presents. Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. Given voter turnout of 70%, this meant that the leave campaign won with only 36% of eligible voters backing it.
That’s why enacting, say, a constitutional amendment generally requires clearing far higher hurdles than passing a spending bill. Yet the current international standard for breaking up a country is arguably less demanding than a vote for lowering the drinking age.
With Europe now facing the risk of a slew of further breakup votes, an urgent question is whether there is a better way to make these decisions. I polled several leading political scientists to see whether there is any academic consensus; unfortunately, the short answer is no.
A country should not be making fundamental, irreversible changes based on a razor-thin minority that might prevail only during a brief window of emotion.
Since ancient times, philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions, not to mention that minority voices are heard.
In the Spartan assemblies of ancient Greece, votes were cast by acclamation. People could modulate their voice to reflect the intensity of their preferences, with a presiding officer carefully listening and then declaring the outcome.
What should the UK have done if the question of EU membership had to be asked (which by the way, it didn’t)? Surely, the hurdle should have been a lot higher; for example, Brexit should have required, say, two popular votes spaced out over at least two years, followed by a 60% vote in the House of Commons. If Brexit still prevailed, at least we could know it was not just a one-time snapshot of a fragment of the population.
It is important to take stock not just of the outcome, though, but of the process.
The current international norm of simple majority rule is, as we have just seen, a formula for chaos.