Britain has voted to leave the EU. The consequences could range from eventual breakdown of the UK to decades spent in economic recovery. It seems hard to believe that British people voted in favour of a position that makes little economic or political sense. Expressions of shock and disbelief are littered across social media. The leave voters are being portrayed as racist and xenophobic fools who have squandered the future of their country with their bigotry and close-mindedness. There is no doubt that the leave campaign was being led by such people and that they preyed upon the insecurities of working class British. Rise in the number of racist incidences post referendum paints a grim picture of dwindling tolerance and public conscience. But such blanket characterization of half of the country’s population, far from being accurate or fair, probably points to the mentality that pushed Britain to this abyss.
Class is the big elephant in the room that British democracy prefers not to deal with. There are few places in the West, where class differences are so jarring and where the political and intellectual class is so cut off from the realities of the poor and the under-privileged. Newsrooms, parliament and the halls of policymaking are dominated by the Oxbridge and private school educated elites. Social mobility in the UK is amongst the worst in the western world. The odds of someone from a modest background making it to the top with sheer hard work seems less probable today than fifty years back. While London and few urban centres continue to thrive, post-industrial towns in the North and the South Coast have been reeling under poverty and unemployment. Growing disillusionment, the feeling of being left out and a gradual disengagement from the political process mark these places.
While it is convenient to depict the leave voters as xenophobic idiots, the other Britain needs to do serious introspection for their part in the debacle. All the self-righteous liberal posturing will not compensate for the fact that, there is a significant population in the UK that feels marginalized, that does not have basic understanding of electoral process and political awareness needed for democracy to function, and that probably voted out of EU as a sort of protest against the London political class. Only 72% turnout in a referendum on an existential issue points to an apathetic electorate and the sorry state of British democracy.
Neither the Labour nor the Conservatives were able to convince leave voters of policies to lessen the impact of immigration on jobs and public services. The idea of EU does not resonate with majority of Brits who see their history and identity as being distinct from that of the mainland Europe. For the educated, upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan Britons who have benefitted from and understand the value of EU membership, Remain didn’t need much convincing. But for those who haven’t seen democracy or globalization improve their lives in the same way and who were being told that London and Brussels were the source of all their problems, things were not so clear. When mainstream parties cannot reach out to the mass, offer them credible alternatives and solutions, the ensuing democratic deficit is ostensibly filled by radical and populist forces. Failure to reclaim this polity and continued vilification will further marginalize this group; intolerance, racism and xenophobia will thrive.
What suffers in all this is the promise of democracy and liberal values not just inside the UK but far beyond its borders. For young and struggling democracies, UK was a shining bastion of freedom and democratic stability. With Brexit, that certainty would have dipped a little. Demagogues and populist leaders and enemies of democracy would have been emboldened. Moderate and liberal voices would have been weakened all over.
With established democracies like the US and the UK succumbing to right wing extremists and emerging democracies unable to deliver development and governance, we are perhaps entering a post-democratic phase. The way things are going, it won’t be long before we hear triumphant declarations from authoritarian countries about how badly western liberal democracy has bungled. And indeed Brexit is an example of how democratic instruments like referendums can be misused to the detriment of people even in so-called consolidated democracies like the UK. David Cameron failed as a democratic leader when he announced the referendum. Democracy is not about passing the buck to voters when the leaders should be the ones shouldering responsibility, providing policy clarity and solutions.
When the fruits of democracy are not evenly distributed, when the polity is uninformed, disengaged and subject to propaganda and leaders use referendum as a tactical move, one cannot expect a positive result. With the Brexit referendum, David Cameron ended up polarizing positions, cementing differences and lowering the level of public discourse, undermining democracy itself in the process.
Brexit should wake us all to the realization that democracy is always a ‘work in progress’ not a linear progression, and in lack of constant strengthening and civic empowerment, without effective governance and performance, the fragility generally associated with emerging and dysfunctional democracies can rattle mature democracies too.
Brexit has also made sufficiently clear that nationalism, sovereignty and cultural/ethnic identity are enduring constructs and not just the problem of troubled, conflict-ridden and ‘less ideologically evolved’ societies as the West would like to pretend. Millions are spent for democracy building and promotion, social engineering and state restructuring in what the West likes to call the ‘Basket Case’ countries. But perhaps it is time the West invests equally more in citizen vigilance and empowerment, bridging inequalities and discrimination and democratic deepening within their borders. How can governments provide strong alternatives to citizens against populist politics and how can they distribute dividends of growth evenly? How can we fix voter apathy and create an electorate capable of taking informed decisions? How do we stop media from becoming an instrument of the demagogues instead of fostering meaningful dialogues and bridging divides? If we want democracy and liberalism to survive, these questions need to be answered. The future of Britain and the future of global democracy are at stake and this time the West could start by fixing things closer home.
Rubeena Mahato is a Master of Public Policy alumna (2014).