Brexit Vote: The Predicaments of Western Democracy
By Wen Xin Lim

Brexit Vote: The Predicaments of Western Democracy

Jun. 25, 2016  |     |  0 comments


The Brexit poll finally came to an end with the Leave campaign successfully securing 52 percent of the vote. There were significant consequences to the poll’s result with the arrival of the UK’s “Black Friday.”  World stocks headed for one of the biggest slumps on record, and billions of dollars of European companies’ capital evaporated as the stock market plunged. Even as tensions and uncertainties arose, they loomed larger as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had initiated the referendum, declared that he would step down as a result of the poll.

The Brexit poll, a democratic “one man, one vote” practice, however, does not seem to have delivered a satisfying result to the world, the EU, or even the UK, where England and Wales recorded 53.2 percent and 51.7 percent votes to leave the EU respectively, leaving Europhilic Scotland and Northern Ireland crestfallen, as the majority of their people had voted to stay in the Euro zone. According to BBC, "Scotland voted in favor of the UK staying in the EU by 62 percent to 38 percent — with all of its 32 council areas backing Remain — raising the prospect of Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will." Opinion which “represented” the UK as a whole was in fact a less favored option in Scotland. The solidarity of the UK could be at stake as Scotland’s Prime Minister claimed "that a new referendum on independence in Scotland was 'highly likely' now that Britain had voted to leave the EU". In this case, democracy is ineffective when being employed by an establishment — the United Kingdom — where the community was sufficiently divided.



Whose voice did the result represent? The younger ones who had to live with the consequences, or the older ones who practically contributed to building the state?


A referendum which leads to a direct decision not only encapsulates complex issues into a simplistic choice, but also tends to carry several flaws. A few days before the actual voting, surveys indicated that a lower turnout come polling day would favor the Leave campaign. Also, the result of the referendum could be decided by the turnout rate of the UK’s young voters, according to Electoral Reform Society statistics. "The knife-edge vote could have swung towards Remain" if more of those aged under 35 participated in the voting. On June 23, turnout at the actual referendum was 72.2 percent due to torrential downpours and this raised questions of whether the result could legitimately be said to represent the interests of the overall population. While 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain in the EU, whose voice did the result represent? The younger ones who had to live with the consequences, or the older ones who practically contributed to building the state?


Today, Western democracy is trapped with its self-inflicted damage. Philip Coggan shows how democracy today faces threats that we ignore at our own risk. Democracy in Churchill’s words is the worst possible form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. Theorists like Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels are disenchanted with the concepts of egalitarianism and democracy, purporting that these systems are utopian folly. Voting works if and only if voters understand what it is really about and the Brexit poll clearly demonstrated that the direction of fundamental policy choices could be out of the control of the people at large.

The term “democracy” means “rule by the people.” Majority rule, an indispensable part in a direct democracy, is extolled for its protection of human rights. Yet, direct democracy can easily become populism when the concept of the “people” is discredited and redefines the meaning of democracy. This is tied to how the EU Referendum came about. In January 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that should the Conservatives win the 2015 general election, he would try to negotiate and revise the terms for the UK's EU membership and also hold an in-out referendum by the end of 2017.  While this was an effective campaigning tool, it nevertheless was bad news for democracy as voters reacted swiftly to the overzealous populist leader. Now that David Cameron has lost the Brexit gamble, he had to bear the consequences of his own actions.

Interestingly, the UK adopted a mixed government — combining both democracy and constitutional monarchy — which according to Aristotle and Plato should be more likely to achieve the best balance between the pitfalls and strengths of each form of government. Yet, the royal family of the Great Britain hardly played any role in the referendum, and Queen Elizabeth II and her immediate family members, according to the constitution, stand above politics and are not required to vote.

While democracy is often perceived as a panacea for political ills, it certainly comes with its own problems. The mayhem in the UK should be a fore notice for the people in the US. If xenophobia and pro-nationalist sentiments could prevail in the UK, who is to say they won’t dominate in the US? How democracy will play out in the US, the world awaits!

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