Tharoor on Brexit: Dangers of Rule by Emotions and Referendum

In the wake of Brexit, does the reassertion of nationalism bode well for Britain and the world, asks Shashi Tharoor.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The historic vote to leave the European Union has stunned international opinion, convulsed the markets, and plunged Britain as well as the EU into a period of geopolitical uncertainty, whose outcome and effects remain unpredictable.

For British Prime Minister David Cameron – who just a year ago was celebrating a triumphant re-election – it is a colossal setback, the result of a self-inflicted wound, since the referendum was wholly unnecessary and was called by him to appease (and silence) right-wing elements in his own party.

He has just announced his resignation as I write. Barely 40, his political career in ruins, he must be ruing the moment he called a vote he probably assumed his side was sure to win.


I have been in Britain for the last two weeks of the campaign and must confess, I am surprised. My conversations with a wide cross-section of voters convinced me that while the vote would be close, the majority of British voters would choose the safe option of remaining rather than plunging themselves into the unknown.

Brexit is the outcome of not just six weeks of often-bitter campaigning that even saw a pro-Remain MP, Jo Cox, assassinated by an unstable man who shouted “Britain First!” as he killed her. It is also, as the Leader of the Liberal Democratic party Tim Farron pointed out, the result of two decades of sustained denigration of the EU and its institutions by a large number of Conservative politicians who should have known better.

For too long, it was fashionable to decry the surrender of sovereignty to Brussels bureaucrats; the waves of immigration flooding in from poorer parts of Europe; the financial losses accruing to the UK from its payment to EU funds that benefited the newer entrants from southern and eastern Europe. Now the chickens have well and truly come home to roost.

Britain’s ‘Independence Day’

I joked on Twitter myself: “Britannia used to rule the waves. Now it can’t even waive the rules. Brussels decides that.”

That sort of sentiment undoubtedly lay behind much of the vote, where a potent campaign slogan was to “take back control” of Britain from the EU. Unsurprisingly, older voters, still misty-eyed for the days when Britain was a global power in her own right rather than an appendage to a European super-state, went overwhelmingly for Brexit. The far-right UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, called the outcome Britain’s “Independence Day”.

For voters aged 19 to 24, who voted 75% in favour of Remain, there will be the shock of having to abandon the Europeanism they had taken for granted all their lives. For the tens of thousands of Europeans from the Continent who had taken advantage of EU membership to make their homes in Britain (mainly in London), there will be the prospect of uprooting their lives in a country where they have suddenly become foreigners.


Echoes of Brexit Vote

Brexit is the first eruption of a worldwide phenomenon – a backlash across the developed world against globalisation, the erosion of borders, the loss of jobs to poorly-paid workers in developing countries, the sense that global forces had taken command of local lives. Such sentiments have already seen the rise of far-right parties in a number of European countries, from the Netherlands to Hungary, as well as elsewhere – look at Donald Trump in the US. The vote is a desperate cry to halt the onrush of forces people cannot understand and which seem to them to be responsible for everything that has gone wrong in their lives.

The sense of erosion of the familiar certitudes that lay behind the Brexit vote will undoubtedly echo elsewhere. Already, right-wing anti-EU politicians like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have called for similar referenda in their own countries. While the odds of the EU as a whole unravelling are still slight, Brexit has unleashed forces whose impact will take several months to become clear.

One issue that Indians would find well worth asking is whether the sort of “direct democracy” practised in Britain on Thursday offers more perils than benefits to nations.


Passing the Buck to the Public

Our political system, modelled on the British, requires our people to elect representatives who then, in their wisdom, are entrusted to take decisions and pass laws on their behalf. Other systems, notably the Swiss, refer all major decisions to referenda in which the public as a whole vote to determine policy outcomes.

Cameron’s awkward marriage of the two practices revealed a lack of political courage – his inability to face down anti-EU sentiment in his own party. But passing the buck to the general public deprives political leaders of the authority they have earned by responsible practice of their profession.

Referenda change the basis of national decision-making from politics to popular sentiment, and the sources of judgement from experts to demagogues. The considerations that normally weigh heavily in the minds of Finance Ministers, for instance, are wholly absent from the thoughts of voters, who are more likely to be reacting to the unaccustomed sound of foreign languages on the bus.

In the wake of Brexit, does the reassertion of nationalism bode well for Britain and the world, asks Shashi Tharoor.
Votes are sorted into Remain, Leave and Doubtful trays, as ballots are counted during the EU Referendum count at the Lindley Hall in London, 24 June 2016. (Photo: AP)

When Politicians Shy Away from Taking Decisions

But if democracy is rule of, by and for the people, shouldn’t the people get to make the major decisions that affect their lives? Fair question, but the real answer is that in a representative democracy, they do – every five years in India – by electing their representatives.

The people are sovereign in a democracy, but they exercise their sovereignty through a Parliament that is meant to reflect their wishes. If politicians become out of touch with the people they claim to represent, they can be tossed out of office at the next election.

To make decisions like this by referendum is to abdicate a major responsibility of the political class – to make informed decisions on behalf of the people they serve.

The pound sterling has already dropped 10% against the US dollar, and investors are bracing themselves for a market crash this morning. The UK economy will wobble, whether or not it recovers soon enough, as Leave supporters optimistically claim it will.

Brexit will give new impetus to demands for separarion from Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Cosmopolitan, European-accented London will change unrecognisably. Borders will spring up where they had disappeared, as with Ireland.

But these are not consequences that would have occurred to the grumpy senior who voted to restore Britain to an imagined state of half-remembered imperial glory.


Rule by Referendum

Brexit teaches us the dangers of rule by referendum. Letting policies with wide ramifications be settled by the emotions of a moment will only ensure that popular sentiment holds sway over informed decision-making. That is not what representative democracy is about.

David Cameron will have a long time available to contemplate his folly in plunging his country into the vortex of uncertainty out of short-term political expediency. For the rest of us, there are larger things to contemplate – the backlash against globalisation, the reassertion of old-fashioned nationalism in the face of eroding borders, the rise of anti-immigrant xenophobia and the risks of making national policy by populism. Donald Trump will be heartened by today’s result.

Just a year ago, no one would have imagined that Europe, Britain and United States would constitute major threats to global geopolitical stability. Today, thanks to Brexit, they are. Pandora has popped out of her box, and no one knows where she will take the world.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author.)

Also read:
Brexit May Deliver a Fatal Punch to the Paris Climate Pact
Why Should India Care About ‘Brexit’?

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