Britain’s Democratic Failure by Kenneth Rogoff
To commemorate its founding 25 years ago, PS republishes a selection of comments written since 1994. In the following commentary, Kenneth Rogoff showed that the real folly of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only one majority simple.
CAMBRIDGE – The real folly of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union was not that UK leaders dared to ask their people to weigh the benefits of membership against the migratory pressures it presents. Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for the exit, requiring only a simple majority. Considering the 70% turnout, that meant the holiday campaign won with just 36% of eligible voters supporting it.
It is not democracy; this is russian roulette for the republics. A decision with enormous consequences – far more important even than changing a country’s constitution (of course the UK did not write one) – was made without any proper checks and balances.
Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Should a majority in Parliament support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the British people really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not. Indeed, no one has the slightest idea of the consequences, both for the UK in the world trading system, or the effect on domestic political stability. I’m afraid it’s not a pretty picture.
Remember that Western citizens are fortunate to live in peacetime: changing circumstances and priorities can be addressed through democratic processes rather than foreign and civil wars. But what is a fair and democratic process for making irreversible decisions that define the nation? Is it really enough to get 52% to vote for breaking on a rainy day?
In terms of sustainability and conviction of preferences, most companies put more obstacles in the way of a couple’s divorce petition than the government of Prime Minister David Cameron did when deciding to leave the EU. . The Brexiteers did not invent this game; there are many precedents, notably in Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. But, until now, the barrel of the pistol has never stopped on the bullet. Now that it is, it’s time to rethink the rules of the game.
The idea that somehow any decision made at any time by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. Modern democracies have developed systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and avoid making ill-informed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The bigger and more durable the decision, the higher the obstacles.
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This is why passing, say, a constitutional amendment usually requires crossing much greater hurdles than passing a spending bill. Yet the current international standard for dividing a country is arguably less demanding than a vote to lower the age of alcohol consumption.
With Europe now facing the risk of a slew of new break-up votes, an urgent question is whether there is a better way to make these decisions. I interviewed several leading political scientists to see if there is an academic consensus; unfortunately, the short answer is no.
On the one hand, the Brexit decision might have looked straightforward on the ballot, but the truth is no one knows what happens after a leave vote. What we do know is that in practice most countries require a “qualified majority” for nation-defining decisions, not just 51%. There is no such thing as a universal figure like 60%, but the general principle is that, at the bare minimum, the majority should be demonstrably stable. A country should not make fundamental and irreversible changes on the basis of a razor thin minority that could only prevail during a brief window of emotion. Even if the UK economy does not fall into an outright recession after this vote (the decline in the pound could cushion the initial blow), there is every chance that the resulting economic and political mess will give some of those who voted to leave “buyers remorse”.
Since ancient times, philosophers have tried to design systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule with the need to ensure that informed parties have more say in critical decisions, not to mention that the voices minorities are heard. In the Spartan assemblies of ancient Greece, votes were cast by acclamation. People could modulate their voices to reflect the intensity of their preferences, with a president listening intently and then declaring the result. It was flawed, but maybe better than what just happened in the UK.
According to some accounts, the sister state of Sparta, Athens, had implemented the purest historical example of democracy. All classes received equal votes (although only men). Ultimately, however, after some catastrophic war decisions, the Athenians saw the need to empower independent bodies.
What should the UK have done if the question of EU membership had to be asked (which, by the way, did not have to be)? Of course, the obstacle should have been much higher; for example, Brexit should have required, say, two popular votes spaced at least two years apart, followed by a 60% vote in the House of Commons. If Brexit still wins, we might at least know that it wasn’t just a one-off snapshot of a fragment of the population.
The British vote threw Europe into turmoil. Much will depend on how the world reacts and how the British government manages to reconstitute itself. However, it is important to take stock not only of the outcome, but also of the process. Any move to redefine a long-standing agreement on a country’s borders should require much more than a simple majority in a single vote. The current international standard of simple majority rule is, as we have just seen, a formula for chaos.