The Brits’ agony over Brexit is a golden opportunity to watch and learn. Referendums play a very important role in democracy, but they are a tool whose use must be very carefully considered, think tank Praxis director Tarmo Jüristo found in commentary provided to Vikerraadio.
I’ve developed a new hobby over the past year or so — I regularly watch British Parliament debates about Brexit on Youtube.
This is entertainment in its own right — a very dramatic, at once comic and tragic slow-motion trainwreck now over three years in the making — which all began with one courageous political adventure.
When stupid gets stupider
Namely, in 2013, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron placated the euroskeptic wing of his party with a promise that should the Conservative Party win the 2015 elections in the U.K., he would organize a referendum regarding the U.K. remaining in the EU.
Cameron himself had been a supporter of EU membership and hoped that the results of the referendum would be in his favor, at the same time providing him with a strong argument for keeping the opposition within his party in check.
The Tories did win the elections, and true to his word, Cameron arranged for a referendum to be held on June 23, 2016. As you’ll recall, the results saw a narrow majority go to those who wanted to leave the union, and from that moment onward, British politics has been one big, ongoing catastrophe in which it always feels like now things can’t possibly get any worse or more stupid — until it can, and does.
As we get closer every day to Oct. 31, the current official, twice-delayed deadline for the U.K.’s exit from the EU, the entire situation is growing increasingly more desperate.
By now, three years and two prime ministers who sacrificed their political careers at the altar of Brexit later, we’ve gone from the initial plan of “Let’s calmly negotiate the conditions with the EU, and split amicably” to a do-or-die, at any cost hard Brexit which would mean not just terminating the U.K.’s membership in the EU, but also dropping out of the European Common Market and the customs union.
Last year, the British government commissioned a thorough evaluation of the impacts of a possible no-deal exit, codename “Operation Yellowhammer,” which leaked last month and paints a pretty grim picture of likely outcomes.Current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised to lead the U.K. out of the EU by Oct. 31, regardless of cost, and as a result has ended up on a crash course with the British Parliament, where he recently also just lost the majority.
This is the backdrop for the tragicomedy that continues to unfold and appears to be approaching its final act in the British Parliament.
One could ask in response to all of this how difficult all of this could possibly be. The people expressed their will in the referendum, and in a democracy, that, of course, is sacred and must be implemented by its politicians.
Unfortunately, over the past three years, anyone and everyone interested has had the chance to watch from the sidelines and see that “the will of the people” is a little more complicated than it may initially appear. Yes, the people — 51.89 percent of those who participated in the referendum, to be exact — wanted the U.K. to exit the EU.
As it quickly became clear, however, these same people certainly didn’t want everything that unfortunately somehow or another cames with that initial, truly simple and straightforward declaration. And so they now find themselves in a situation in which the majority of Brits don’t want the U.K. to exit the EU without a deal, but not a single deal offered up in parliament thus far has earned the support of the majority (either in the Parliament or among voters).
The majority of British voters likewise don’t want to postpone Brexit for a third time or new snap elections before the Oct. 31 deadline. The majority of voters consider the issue of an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland either unconditionally or very important, but at the same time also believe that the U.K. shouldn’t make any concessions to the EU when it comes to the rules for the European Common Market (which is the basis for such an open border).
To top it all off, according to the results of the latest poll, a narrow majority of Northern Irish voters would be ready to leave the U.K. and unify with Ireland. And so on, and so forth.
This reminds me of a quote frequently misattributed to Winston Churchill, the most famous British prime minister in history: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
There’s actually no reason to criticize those who made the “wrong” choice, though. Rather, we could and should point an accusing finger at politicians who, instead of doing their jobs, sought an easy out and were prepared to take on a high-stakes gamble, which has brought British society and democracy into its current sad state, in order to do so.
For everyone else, the Brits’ agony is a golden opportunity to watch and learn. Referendums play a very important role in democracy, but they are a tool whose use must be very carefully considered.
If you were to ask the people whether they wanted lower taxes, bigger pensions, more public services and half as many people administering them, and all at once, then it’s very easy to be told yes to each question — and we cannot fault them for saying so. We can, however, fault politicians asking questions like that.