In Britain’s Brexit brawl, time for restraint, consent

In suspending Parliament, a prime minister plays hardball while Brexit’s opponents play for time after losing a referendum. Both need a change of course to save their democracy.

Britain's Houses of Parliament on the bank of The River Thames in London Aug. 29.

In a Britain already divided over how – or whether – to leave the European Union, a new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has decided to shorten the time for Parliament to consider an alternative to his path to Brexit before an October deadline. His unusual tactic has created an uproar, notably among those who lost the referendum on Brexit in 2016.

For them, the issue now is the prime minister’s apparent assault on democracy itself. For Mr. Johnson, his opponents’ outrage and delay tactics are also an assault on democracy, largely because the losing side in the referendum has yet to consent to the official outcome.

For democracies facing sharp divisions and a decline in trust of institutions, Britain provides an example of the need for two things after a vote with high stakes: losers’ consent and winners’ restraint. The real threat to democracy is not having enough of both.

In elections, referendums, or legislative votes, not all losers are gracious and not all victors are magnanimous. Both may resort to maximal, dubious tactics when they should instead work on a consensus that will maintain the integrity of the democratic process.

Losers often either abandon the system or try to rip it down. Winners might rig it to stay in power even though democracies need a regular churn in parties and people assuming power to keep faith in democracy. In addition, not all vote victories are that clear-cut. In one study of stable democracies between 1950 and 1995, only around 45% of victors won with a majority. 

The process of voting is really a way to articulate both the concerns and the hopes of constituents, and these can often be at odds with each other. The previous prime minister, Theresa May, came up with a Brexit plan that attempted to keep Britain tied somewhat to Europe but not officially in the EU. She failed to get it approved by Parliament. Now both sides are desperate, perhaps regardless of the consequences.

At times like these, patience, reason, and humility by both politicians and engaged citizen can sometimes open up unexpected avenues and lead to consensus. Democracy cannot survive if it produces oppressive winners and sore losers. Its very legitimacy starts with the idea that we’re all in this together.

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