The Brexit earthquake has happened, and the aftershocks look likely to unsettle Britain’s political and economic life for months to come. Prime Minister David Cameron is off, hoist on his own petard. The country’s major political parties are in meltdown. Sterling has dropped, the economy is wobbling. Newspapers are reporting an epidemic of racist hate-crime. If social media is any guide, the national conversation remains a font of anger and recrimination.
Whether you view Brexit as a victory for self-determination or a spectacular act of national self-harm, there is one thing that the campaign proved beyond doubt: referendums, as a device of government, are as crude as they are bitterly divisive.
The lessons to be drawn from the last month of campaigning in Britain hold huge import for the future. In a time of growing political volatility, Brexit may be the first of many popular votes to affect Europe in the years to come. Within hours of the result, nationalist parties in France and The Netherlands were calling for E.U. referendums of their own. Scotland was pondering the prospect of a second vote on independence. Irish nationalists were demanding a border poll on a united Ireland. In Britain, as the inevitable destabilization of a Leave victory becomes real, a petition calling for a re-run of the Brexit vote has gained four million signatures. Tony Blair, among others, claims that a follow-up is a possibility, a proposition that threatens to imprison the U.K. in an infinite loop of democratic masochism. Across an increasingly fractured continent, we are witnessing the march of the demagogues, and referendums are their weapon of choice.
It is time to call foul.
Britain’s referendum wasn’t a triumph of democracy. It was an ugly populist fiasco—a race to see which side could achieve the right crescendo of anxiety and rage at the right time. How did such an important political question become so mired in hysteria and misinformation?
The more obvious part of the reason lies in the polarizing nature of single-issue plebiscites. Presented with a binary choice, most voters will do little more than seek reinforcement for already immutable anxieties. For Britain, a country with a diverse multi-party political landscape, this has meant a taste of the bipartisan psychodrama that America is forced to wrestle with every four years, as its two-party system cleaves the electorate in two.
But Brexit was worse than that. Everyone understood that a win for Leave would usher in seismic change. But the shape that change would take was so riddled with uncertainty that voters were able to graft on whatever issue most exercised their politics. Against a backdrop of economic austerity, fear of immigration and mercurial public opinion, Brexit provided a fertile breeding-ground for lies and half-truths to gain traction.
Ultimately, this was a debate framed by symbolism, with “in” representing cohesion (or, if you were pro-Leave, vested interest and the neo-liberal agenda), and “out” representing self-reliance and national pride (or, if you were pro-Remain, isolationism and fear of outsiders).
Once the battle-lines were drawn, and the respective canards embedded, truth took a back-seat to personality and emotion. Political dissemblance flourished. For Remain this took the form of hyperbolic warnings over what a future outside the E.U. would look like—of turbulence, war and economic catastrophe. The Leave camp countered with obscurantism and hollow sloganeering. Their vague but seductive mantra, “take back control,” stuck on repeat from the moment it was first uttered, invited anyone harboring a sense of grievance against “the establishment” to tie themselves to the Leave banner. This, more than anything, probably provided the key to swaying undecided voters.
In a sprint for the line, the media’s hunger for sensational headlines allowed Leave to capture the salience and dominate the front-pages. Not only did this cocktail of uncertainty and tabloid speculation leave people divided, but it also left them frightened and vulnerable to allegorical news stories both at home and abroad. Polling may be an inexact science (most polls immediately preceding the vote predicted a win for Remain), but prevailing trends in the month before the vote suggested that the end-result could have hinged as much on external agency as political claim and counter-claim.
The mass-shooting in Orlando, coming as it did at a time when the Leave campaign was betting the house on immigration, probably mobilized more support for Leave than a thousand speeches and editorials. The murder of Jo Cox, held up as a horrifying manifestation of nationalist hatred, appeared to stop the Leave momentum in its tracks. In the end, it wasn’t enough. But the very fact that it was part of the conversation—that Remainers like me awaited the identity of the arrested suspect with terrible foreboding in case he was foreign—demonstrates the extent to which the vote had become a crude competition between emblems and martyrs. It doesn’t require a degree in political science to postulate how much greater the Leave margin of victory might have been had the suspect turned out to be Polish or Romanian. Hell, it would have been different enough had he been from Pakistan. The Leave’s anti-immigration message had become so synonymous with the idea of foreign threat that it would hardly have mattered.
By this point tribal group-think had taken over. In the televised debates, the tone was reduced to pantomime, with one half shouting: “Oh yes it is,” and the other shouting: “Oh no it isn’t,” with so much equivocation in between that it was impossible to tell who was lying, or even if they knew they were.
As those debates raged, no one felt able to question whether a referendum that had increasingly lost its grip on reason should have been called at all. For a democratically-elected politician to criticize the inviolability of the public will is verboten. But how could one not question the public will in such a febrile atmosphere? As everyone started to retreat into their self-reinforcing echo-chambers, our collective capacity for rational decision-making had been fatally diminished.
How else to explain why, in a talk-radio poll carried out in the immediate run-up to voting, an astonishing 46% of Leavers expressed their belief that a win for Remain would mean the result had been rigged? On polling day, the hashtag #USEPENS trended on Twitter, as conspiracy theories abounded that Cameron, or the establishment, or the free-masons, or whoever, might send people round with erasers to alter Leavers’ ballot papers. Far from celebrating the power of democracy, Brexit had somehow contrived to undermine people’s faith in its efficacy.
The following day, after 72% of the British electorate had spoken, Google reported a spike in people asking the question: “What is the EU?” Never had Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” carried such chilling resonance.
As we like to say in Britain: “what an utter shambles.”
Presented now with the aftermath, commentators in Britain are picking through the detritus of a vote that has resolved little, and left behind a country more divided—and potentially more diminished—than before. Brexit, we now know, was a proxy. The result wasn’t about the European Union. It was a howl of inchoate grievance, a vehicle for malcontents to express their anger towards a status quo of which the E.U. was but one part. Proportionality be damned.
In exposing, these fault-lines, and excavating others that we never knew we had, it has brought festering resentments to the surface. The E.U. can no longer be made scapegoat for the British government’s failures. That, at least, is something.
But many are also left ruing the fact that it was ever allowed to happen in the first place. The phrases ‘Bregret’ and ‘Regrexit’ have become new buzzwords, as Leave voters queue up to confess they feel hoodwinked, sold on a false prospectus. The other half of Britain—the 16 million people who voted Remain—feel tyrannized by the slimmest of majorities. It might have been democracy, but it was democracy at its worst.
After Brexit, many in Britain can only hope that our representatives in parliament will never pass the buck again.