An article in the New Statesman this week suggested that to believe in democracy meant believing that the vote of the majority was always wiser than that of the individual. Which is a nice thought, if disastrously utopian. According to this outlook, democracy is actually some kind of zeitgeist communism in which, each holding a piece of the puzzle yet not conferring, we achieve the impossible – the perfect answer.
But when we’re truthful and reflect, democracy is a seriously flawed and easily corruptible system. It’s no puzzle-solver, it’s just the best of a bunch of mainly mediocre solutions to the intractable problem of managing society fairly.
How good each act of democracy is, is itself subject to much debate. It really depends on how, when, and by whom it is wielded. And the case the NS article endeavoured drum up some optimism about is an example of the worst kind of democracy there is: the plebiscite referendum.
‘What have you got against referenda?’ I hear the cry, ‘Brexit, while being an omnishambles, was still the most democratic event of the decade. We can be proud of that!’
But can we really?
Hitler used four referenda to consolidate his Nazi regime. There was no magical zeitgeist during those referenda to tell him to get stuffed. But how different was our “Brexit” referendum to Hitler’s? Unfortunately, it seems, not nearly enough.
Here’s Hitler’s 1938 referendum question:
‘Do you approve of the reunification of Austria with the German Reich that was enacted on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the party of our leader, Adolf Hitler? Yes. No.’
The greatest problem (of many) with this question, is that it’s actually two conflated questions bundled into one. Two questions that don’t match but to which you can only give one answer. So, did the EU referendum follow the same trick? Not on the ballot paper. But the pre-ballot campaigning ensured the question was conflated in the populace’s minds with dozens of other questions. Here are some of the most popular:
· Do you believe in a cap on immigration?
· Would you rather 350 million a week was spent on the NHS than an elitist group?
· Would you like to avoid a TTIP-style deal with the US?
. Do you want to stop millions of Turks coming to the UK next year?
· Do you choose democracy over bureaucracy?
· Are you anti-neoliberalism?
· Do you want increased democracy?
· Do you want Poles and Romanians to stop taking your children’s school places and stealing your benefits?
· Do you want to stick two fingers up to the establishment?
· Do you want to stop faceless foreigners deciding British law?
Of course, a vote to leave the EU is a vote for none of these things (most of which contain fantasy in the premise), yet these are just a very few of the conflations enthusiastically perpetuated by the Leave campaign. We could mention at least Hitler stopped at two. Without any kind of future plan or deal with invested parties (trade deals, we know, are so complicated they can take years to forge) there was no rightful way the Leave campaign could offer any of the things they did. Yet still it was allowed to happen. Democracy? Perhaps. If so, democracy at its worst.
Another of Hitler’s referendum tactics was to employ propaganda machines, working day and night to convince the population they were pursuing the right and only course of action. So, again, did the Leave campaign have a propaganda machine working for it? The answer is undoubtedly yes, not least of all in Britain’s two most widely-circulated newspapers: The Sun and The Daily Mail. Along with gaily printing all of the hollow promises of the Leave Campaign, these papers bombarded their readership with tales of ‘broken, dying Europe,’ asking, ‘who will speak for England?’ Printing horror-stories about the influx of migrants (some of which they were forced to retract) and even going so far as to claim, falsely, that ‘the Queen backs Brexit.’ Numbers were invented to suit. Any opposing view, or any fact that disrupted their narrative, was dispatched with (in Orwellian fashion) as ‘Project Fear.’ These tabloids ensure we live in a post-factual society.
But the major problem with a plebiscite referendum beyond all this, is that it takes an exceedingly complicated question, boils it down impossibly to a black-and-white choice of two options, and then asks millions of people with no expertise or knowledge of the situation to decide. It’s not that the British population are stupid – far from it. The difficulty is that international diplomacy, global economics and cross-border cooperation are all such complex subjects that each require years of study to grasp. We could expect a similarly clear result from asking:
‘At this stage in the stereotactic crainiotomy, do we make a small incision into the midbrain or do we cauterise the gasserion ganglion?’
and then bombarding the country with a million contradictory pieces of propaganda on the subject of brain surgery. Except brain surgery is simpler than the topics involved in the EU referendum, and a wrong decision only ruins one person’s life.
The sad fact is that the EU referendum was little more than a power struggle between elements of the ruling class in which the population was used and abused like pawns on a chessboard. It was a reckless gambling game in which both sides lost, but not as catastrophically as the millions of ordinary people who will be affected, in and out of Britain, and the future generations who will be left to mop up the mess. If there’s much worth mopping up.
Whatever the future, this referendum has been a total miscarriage of democracy.