What has come to pass in the United Kingdom with the referendum on membership of the European Union could well be interpreted as poor governance anywhere across the developing world. Consider how we got here. To appease both his backbenchers and potential UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters in the run-up to a highly contested election, David Cameron gave them a referendum on the European Union, so they could finally stop “banging on” about it. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, for his part, seemed to be interested mostly in one thing, “the number that says No 10”, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd put it in a debate in the lead-up to the referendum. He embraced Brexit thinking that Leave would lose, but that his support for the campaign would position him well to become premier in two years' time.
This kind of short-sighted self-interest is, by definition, a leading problem in all those countries where the UK and other international donors are seeking to foster more effective – as well as fairer and more inclusive – institutions: political ambition takes precedence over longer term horizons, in ways that can often compromise the collective public good. This gamble on EU membership, which was unnecessary to start with, could well cost the unity of the UK itself (Scotland has made clear it does not want to leave the EU and would therefore consider a second Independence vote), and cause waves of shock well beyond it.
It is entirely possible that having Boris on the Remain side would not have changed the outcome of the referendum, but it is certainly the case that he gave the Leave camp a political wattage and credibility it had lacked. I am also sure none of these three leaders was consciously aware of the kind of damage that was being caused until it was too late.
We all know what has happened since. Cameron and other key architects of the referendum and the campaigns for and against have resigned or stepped aside, the leaderships of both major political parties are being severely tested, and the UK seems steeped in its deepest crisis in recent history, without a clear sense of how to move forward from this impasse.
So where to go from here?
The referendum results have revealed a UK that is deeply polarised, with concentrated pockets of the population for and against Brexit heavily divided along geography, age, education, and class. Clearly, the outcome is a rude wake-up call to address long-standing grievances of those who have been 'left behind' – especially among older, white, socially conservative voters in more economically marginal, and often rural, areas in England and Wales.
But the vote was won by an extremely narrow margin, under 4%. Because it was such a close call, the result is not and cannot be taken as a blanket mandate to do something as fundamental as leaving the European Union. Changes of such magnitude ought to require a much more stringent threshold than a simple majority allows, precisely because the stakes are likely to be much higher, not only for today but for generations to come. This is why, for example, constitutions in countries ranging from the United States to South Africa can only be amended with two-third majorities.
As the UK itself and other donors regularly advise in developing settings confronting similarly deep-rooted divisions, this is not the time for the kind of 'winner takes all' politics that would pit one half of the UK population against the other. Addressing the concerns of one side at the expense of the other is not a sustainable way forward, especially when there is such an even split, and when one of the consequences could well be the dissolution of the UK altogether. Moreover, as events unfolding over the past two weeks have made clear, many of the promises that the Leave campaign made – from redirecting funds that would otherwise be destined for the EU towards the NHS and other domestic priorities, to stemming the flow of immigration – are not likely to materialise any time soon. This also has helped to crystallise the fact that a binary choice between staying in or leaving the EU is not the solution to what are deep-rooted political and socio-economic problems.
What we urgently need now is to reweave the social fabric across the multiple cleavages and faultlines that divide us and to build a fairer and more inclusive political system where all voices have a chance to be heard. It is time for reflection and for a substantive national conversation that can cut across those divisions and help us overcome the challenges that confront us together. I am afraid leaving the EU on the basis of the current referendum results does not offer such hope because it is too terminal and exclusionary a decision. The referendum may have well represented a unique democratic moment, as King’s College Professor Anand Menon has put it. But referenda are also rather blunt instruments that capture snapshots of sentiment at a given point in time, and they are not well suited to make decisions on complex issues. This is also why it is important to emphasise that they are not binding. This referendum on Brexit, like any other, does not automatically become policy. Parliament is the ultimate sovereign body in the UK and it will have to deliberate and chart a way forward.
History will not forgive Cameron or Boris for so casually wagering away the UK’s future. But we collectively cannot allow history to judge us in the same light. We must rise to this momentous occasion with resolve and empathy and the kind of commitment and long-term vision that has been so sorely missing from those in both the Leave and Remain camps who have thrust us into this void. If we cannot do this for ourselves, we must do it for young people, who have overwhelmingly voted to stay (75% in favour). It is unconscionable that what started as a misguided tool to manage dissent within or from the Tory party should end up robbing young people of their country and their dreams.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.
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