Brexit aftershock: a broad challenge to British politics, democracy

While those on the winning side hail the people’s choice to leave the European Union, the results have been contested across the country. And both major parties are seeing leadership battles.

Anthony Devlin/Press Association/AP
Ballots from the City of Westminster and City of London are counted at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London, during the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union last week.

Many Britons who cast their vote to leave the European Union last week say they did so because their democracy was under threat, hijacked by faceless “Eurocrats” in Brussels.

But with the victorious result for the Leave camp in last week's shock referendum, a fractious, bitter debate has opened up about the health of politics in Britain and whether the referendum itself may end up the bigger menace to British democracy.

While those on the winning side hail the people’s choice – one that top leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, say must be respected – the results have been contested across the country.

From marches in London over the weekend to movements across social media calling for a second referendum, many are now condemning the referendum's simple-majority threshold and the vacuous campaigns that preceded the vote, with fear-mongering and myths rampant on both sides. Britons are asking whether Parliament can overrule the results; if Scotland, which voted heavily to remain, can veto it; and whether such a wide-reaching decision should have ever been designed as a simple yes or no question.

Simon Griffiths, senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, says that referendums are legitimate and democratic tools – but ones that dissolve nuance.

“They neglect the way that politics is a process, where different people come together and come up with a solution that is a compromise,” he says. “There are better ways of reflecting the complexity of life than trying to simplify things into asking yes or no.”

A sense of confusion

Now, many Britons want a redo of June 23, when the populace voted 52 percent in favor of leaving the EU and 48 percent in favor of remaining. The turnout was high, with 72 percent of eligible voters. While the vote was non-binding, both sides had pledged to abide by the outcome.

An online petition for Parliament to conduct a new referendum has attracted 3.5 million signatories. But it's been slammed by Leave supporters who say voters can't hold another election simply because they don't like the results from the first one.  

The petition has been growing steadily – reflecting a sense of daze and disbelief that hangs over Remain strongholds like London.

Edward Woodcock, a director at an advertising agency in London, describes his own sense of denial.

“On Friday, I felt like I was grieving. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I literally couldn’t work. And I just thought that I would wake up and it would go away,” he says. “But today I am beginning to accept it a bit more. This is not going to go away. We are not going to have a re-run, we are not going to have a second referendum. I have to accept that this is the new reality and we need to find our way forward.”

The path forward is littered with obstacles. Mike Finn, a professor of British politics at the University of Warwick, says that while there is no doubt the referendum was a legitimate tool – and he sees no basis to hold another – he says there is anecdotal evidence that many voters used this as a simple protest vote, with limited knowledge of the implications, which explains some of the “buyer’s remorse” expressed in the media.

Both sides have been lambasted for scare-mongering. The Remain camp painted a picture of economic demise – and while the markets have taken a hit, it’s unclear how longlasting it will be. The Leave camp promised that money earmarked to the EU would go to the National Health Service, but it’s not so clear-cut that that can happen.

The lack of trust is palpable. In a YouGov poll carried out before the results, 28 percent of those supporting Leave said they thought MI5 was colluding with the government to keep Britain in the EU. Forty-six percent said they believed the results would be rigged.

"What we have seen in consecutive referendums is the ability to say what you like, to offer opinion without evidence. And that leaves the public in a sense of confusion; and that affects the results,” Professor Finn says. 

And the fact that it only required a simple majority that split nearly down the middle is getting a hard look.

“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,’’ Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, wrote in a blog post on June 24. “Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.”

Political upheaval

Now Britain is in a political crisis, with the Conservative party facing a vacuum at the top, as the party is split who should replace Prime Minister Cameron, who announced he would resign by October. One being tipped is the controversial Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and the leading Leave supporter. The Labour party faced a flurry of resignations from leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow government over the weekend and into Monday. Already a polarizing figure as a more old-school leftist, Mr. Corbyn was criticized for not more vigorously campaigning for Remain.

Adding to the uncertainty is the discontent in Scotland, which voted 55.3 to 44.7 percent in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom during an independence referendum, but voted 62 percent in favor of remaining in the EU. That will likely prompt another independence referendum. Before then, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told the BBC Sunday that she believed the Scottish Parliament could block a “Brexit” by withholding its consent for the legislative moves required to implement it. But not all agree it has such authority.

Mr. Finn says that while the referendum is “prima facie legitimate,” he says it does undermine the legitimacy of the union.

“Legitimacy is not a straightforward issue,” he says. “On purely narrow referendum terms, it is legitimate. But for the UK as a political entity, it may not be seen the same way and it is almost inevitable that you see the union falling apart.’’

That is the one argument he says could be used as a solution to avoid Brexit. But he adds that the likelier outcome is a constitutional crisis, as the UK faces the fracturing of the union, a ruling party without clear leadership, and an opposition whose head is under pressure to step down.

“The government was not prepared for Brexit. They simply don’t have the personnel,” says Finn. “It is hard to forecast how the political process will evolve. There is a power vacuum at the moment and that in itself is a political crisis.”

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