The unexpected Brexit decision on June 23, 2016 has opened a Pandora’s Box on the meaning of democracy worldwide.
A common analogy used to describe Brexit is the divorce of an estranged couple who are better off separated. While divorce was considered taboo long ago and often ends in acrimony, with feelings of betrayal and temptations of revenge running deep, it is now a norm. In the past, few would disagree that the most acrimonious episode in a divorce process is the sorting of conjugal assets. However, in the past few decades, the world has gained much more legal and customary experience with regard to divorce, so much so that the separation of conjugal assets leaves little feeling of bitterness and uncertainty. Modern divorced couples sometimes even end up as friends.
But I find it hard to see similarities between Brexit and modern day divorce.
Firstly, the Brexit negotiation will be unprecedented. The union since 1973 has intertwined so many people’s lives and ways of living, making the separation of “what goes to whom” and “who should take care of what” very complicated. The average age of a Briton is 40 and the 43 years of living under the EU means that the majority of Britons have not experienced life outside of the EU. There are thousands of pages of EU laws and regulations being applied on UK soil today, more than 3 million EU citizens live in the UK, and 1.3 million Britons live in the EU. The time consuming and tedious job of rewriting EU laws to suit the UK’s conditions and clarifying the residency status of the millions that will lose that automatic residency right within the union make any Brexit decision a matter of utmost importance, and something that any responsible government must carefully consider before it embarks on any Brexit decision.
Right after the referendum result on Brexit, we saw the uncommon outcry of many pro-Brexit voters that they had been misled to vote for separation, claiming that their vote was a kind of protest against immigration and that they had not really intended to leave the EU. More than 3 million Britons from both the pro- and anti-Brexit camps had signed electronically, in a span of four days, a request for another referendum. Complaints, ranging from questioning the legitimacy of a simple majority on important national issues to the pro-Brexit camp using illegitimate scare tactics to entice exit votes, filled the internet and television. The surreal atmosphere surrounding this unprecedented flip-flop of the pillar of democracy caught the world’s imagination, and is indeed thought-provoking. What went wrong with the Westminster form of representative democracy?
The British pioneered the modern version of democracy and their representative government is supposed to shield the population from spur-of-the-moment populism. Under a representative government, the people’s chosen representatives are the ultimate policy decision-makers, and their wisdom is supposed to lead the people in thinking long-term in terms of policy formulation and implementation. People exercise their sovereign will by electing these representatives. However, these representatives are not legally obliged to follow the result of the Brexit referendum, and the result of the referendum can be overturned by either a second referendum or a new election. It seems though, at the moment, that the chosen representatives have apparently abrogated their mandate and followed the populist notion. They directly asked them to decide on an emotionally-tainted issue, not looking into the repercussions of this direct exercise of the sovereign power of the people.
The apparent hijack of representative democracy by a populist democracy in this Brexit episode will heighten the worry of many Asian countries on the merits of democracy. Outgoing Prime Minister Cameron’s implicit message — that his government had a mandate to call the referendum but not to deal with the circumstances should the country vote to leave — disheartens many traditional Asians.
Many Asian countries have long distrusted popular democracy, looking at the Westminster form of representative democracy as a more acceptable way of open governance. Now with Scotland and Northern Ireland’s separation from the UK lurking around the corner, the very existence of the UK is under scrutiny. Asian leaders have more reasons to look at their own definition of open governance, and the talk of universal democratic value will simply melt under the current circumstances. Asian leaders’ long held suspicion of Western style democracy has been validated, and now Asian leaders must look for their own expressions of democracy.