Brexit – a one-night stand in political decision making? Complex political questions cannot be solved using referenda
The Brexit vote once again demonstrates the well understood but rarely acknowledged fact that referenda do NOT constitute a valid instrument of democracy when it comes to resolving complex questions. Most countries end up deeply divided, as also happened in Canadian French Separatist referenda. There was potential for great anguish and violence, but fortunately this was avoided due to the leadership of French-Canadian politicians like Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretian who firmly backed unity. Their politics should be contrasted with the “state-terror” approach of the 1977-1983 period in Sri Lanka.
Many countries do not rely on a blunt instrument like a referendum, but require a 2/3 majority in a parliament for taking such major steps. A Referendum is good for making decisions about some local project, e.g., where to put a school, or a traffic light. Only simple considerations are needed in evaluating such questions. But when big questions that defy professionals are asked from a divided nation, the referendum leaves them equally divided and much more alienated from one another than before the referendum.
The British participation in the Common Market was initiated during the time of Primer Edward Heath. The British-EU link was some 40 years old when David Cameron came on the scene. During that time the other partners and Britain had devoted major amounts of their energy and capital to accommodate Britain by the EU, and EU by Britain. Millions of jobs depended on this union. So, being able to just leave the union by a unilateral act is NOT democratic. Worse than that, such acts can trigger global instabilities, putting millions of innocent people out of jobs, and also stopping humanitarian aid to refugees running away from war-torn countries because the world economy itself begins to flounder. The cataclysmic Brixit has occurred just when the Western world is struggling with its own socio-economic problems arising from the impossible aspirations of some seven billion people inhabiting the Earth, aspiring to live like what they see on television.
Most people decide on how to cast their vote on a very limited “personal experience” view of the matter. Very few people can evaluate a 40-year political and economic process which even experts don’t understand. We go by our “gut reaction” even though we know the ‘shit’ in our gut. A fisherman may not be happy with his quota for fishing, because, say, the EU has ruled that cod stocks are dwindling, limiting cod fishing. Or they will grumble that the Spanish, defeated by Nelson are getting “more than their traditional share”! UK professionals who felt that “immigrants” from the EU are lowering their status in society simply voted for Brixit! It is such narrow reasons that guide individual voters.
The foolish, arrogant politician that Cameron is, he never believed that his brinkmanship will backfire and lead to not only Britain splitting off from the EU, but also UK splitting off into independent Scotland and Ireland. The Union Jack itself will have to change into just the English flag, ending several centuries of union in the madness of an early-summer “one-night stand”. There was NO need what so ever to call for this referendum. But Cameron thought he could bully the Brixit members in his own party by engaging in brinkmanship. He should have asked how many referenda had been held in England since the Magna Carta?
One does not discard several centuries of “United Kingdom”, and 40 years of EU in one measurement of the public mood, especially on a very complex topic involving international collaboration that enables one to look after common resources like fish stock, air quality, control of insecticides and fertilizers, control of coal-fired power plants, nuclear reactors etc. These are hard to do when requiring agreement from some three-dozen countries. But if they are already under an alliance (like the EU) all measures for the protection of the environment, as well as the consumer can be enforced and were enforced through the European parliament. Immigration, Crime and human rights can be better protected, (and this is exactly the argument why police powers etc. should not be devolved into provinces as proposed in 13A). All these good things as well as fiscal controls, health and quarantine controls, had been built into the European region over 40 years, and now, in one night, a mere 3% of voter majority could undo several centuries of “United” kingdom and 40 years of EU effort, because of people who don’t understand the implications of an over-crowded global village.
Politicians must give the people another chance to think and vote, just as a patient takes several measurement of the blood pressure before s/he rushes for medication. Indeed, in the French Presidential elections, there is a “deuxiem tour” after the first round, to calm the electorate and select from the first round lead contestants.
The idea of independent nations which lived as they wished, doing what they wished, exploiting the environment, exercising their “self-determination”, was valid in a world that had only 5 to 10 million people or less. At that time messages or imperial commands taken along the silk route reached their destinations after many months or years. Even villages in a given country were relatively independent. In Ancient Lanka a village could have its own temple, tank and local citizenry living on local produce, having little contact with the outside world, except for the traveling mendicant or pilgrim parties. Today it is NOT VALID, with every part of the globe connected at the speed of electromagnetic waves.
The effect of Brixit was immediately felt in Japan, with its stock market tanking down.
The origin of the massive refugee problem was Cameron (and Nicolas Sarkozy) becoming even more militant than US, and proceeding to bomb Libya and Syria ostensible to “install democracy” there. They became inhabitable, and the mass exodus of refugees destabilized the whole European Union. The unintended consequences of triggering rapid change in complex systems can be very great. Modern mathematical theory shows how even a butterfly wing clap in Africa can affect the weather in Mongolia (Of course this is not exactly true, because many butterflies clap their wings and there is an averaging controlled by the central-limit theorem in Statistical phenomena. But we don’t have many Brexit-type referenda averaging out each other).
Considering the Sri Lankan context, the call for a referendum to eliminate 13 A or any thing like that is equally dangerous. Referenda should NEVER be used in evaluating complex democratic processes unless ALL stakeholders are consulted in the vote which should be a timed sequence of steps involving repeats. In a Tamil separatist referendum, it is not just the people in the North and the East who are relevant, but the views of the Southerners as they too have to live with it. But a referendum for unity will not be accepted by those who want a separatist conclusion. So nothing will be resolved, but more violence and distrust will be sowed.
Complex matters should NEVER be determined by a referendum. It should be by a 2/3 majority in parliament where the parliament should consult expert committees. If the referendum is to be used as the final tool, then there should be at least three time-separated referenda, and a suitably weighted run-up decision has to be taken.
In scientific experiments we repeat the experiment many times and even then the answer is provisional. In politics one has to act on provisional results and so it is even more important to ensure that a one-night stand of a “David Cameron” does not produce a grotesque baby that burdens the rest of the world.