Democracy Hasn’t Failed Us, We’ve Failed Democracy

Where we are

On Thursday, a slim margin of a few percent took the United Kingdom out of the European Union and into economic, political, and existential uncertainty. The older, rural English population has carried a vote that severely threatens the Union’s future, as well as economic stability both here and across Europe. For many people of my age group, that #FridayFeeling was therefore a distinctly sinking sensation somewhere around the mid-gut. We are by now used to feeling betrayed by the political process, but feeling betrayed by our own country-men and women is something new, and it stings. We have had our futures and our identity shaped against our will by a generation removed from us, with views that often seem alien to us. To add insult to injury, it was through a straight-forward democratic vote — the very same process that is supposed to empower us. And yet, before we the metropolitan young lose all faith in our democracy, we need to take a step back and consider how we got here, if we are to figure out where we’re going.

How we got here

It is true that the Leave campaign ran what was essentially a xenophobic, narrow-minded campaign, often being caught out for blatant lies and exaggerations. And yet look who the opposition were — the same establishment figures who responded to the crash in 2008 by punishing the taxpayer and cutting public services. At the same time, migration from the EU allowed large numbers of European workers to enter, though dwarfed by non-EU migration. However they did not to sit around and claim benefits, as the common narrative went, but worked damn hard for wages that were unacceptable to their native equivalents. The manufacturing industry in Britain continued to die its slow death, while the popular right-wing press incessantly demonised Europeans for claiming benefits whilst stealing our jobs and Muslims for being terrorists whilst posing too well as moderates. This same journalism class, owned lock-stock-and-barrel by the ruling elite who run the show in British politics, used the resentment that economic hardship and political disenfranchisement brought and augmented it with real, visceral fear. The Turks will overrun us! The Muslims will blow us up! When they weren’t appealing to fear, it was to pride: the British have only ever been European out of charity. The continent, quite literally, can’t touch us. It’s time to cut loose.

Of course, when the Remain campaign desperately tried to show that “the EU is flawed + hope” is not a viable argument for a Britain outside the UK, they were on the wrong side of the narrative. Farage was characteristically unsubtle about it when he cried that this wasn’t about freedom from the EU – a startling statement given the name of his political party- but rather it was about the people vs. the establishment. And here we are, a day later — the hangover is kicking in and the Young Turks we just let in look awfully similar to the Old Guard we just kicked out, just with a more frightening glint in their eye.

breaking point inclusive and responsible poster

A right wing press has for years been demonising immigrants, now joined by the Leave Campaign

When democracy fails

For many of us who felt the threats to the Union, the economy and our national identity outweighed a fleeting sense of ‘independence’, the referendum has caused us to lose what little  faith remained in our supposed golden democratic ideals. Democracy is supposed to be the empowerment of the individual, and yet twice in two years have huge sections of the British public felt absolutely shafted by its ever-wise dictates. Last year, the Tories secured a majority government with only 24% of the registered voter base, (37% excluding those who felt it was pointless to vote either way). And now this year, 52% of the country have left the other 48% completely disenfranchised, made all the more worse by the fact that the youth who largely voted against it will bear the brunt of its effects. How is this fair? Why was such an important issue allowed to be decided by such a slim majority, especially when 75% of <24s voted to stay?

Whilst of course these issues burn in our minds, the proposed alternatives aren’t attractive: requiring a super-majority seems decidedly undemocratic, and weighting votes by age is hardly better.

No, the problem wasn’t the fact that there was a vote. The problem goes far, far deeper than that. The key problem is that a democracy is only as good as the knowledge of the electorate. If the electorate can be shown to be chronically misinformed and under-educated on the issue at hand, then it will always do more harm than good.

And indeed, chronically misinformed and under-educated they were. An Ipsos MORI poll revealed that:

  • On average Brits believed that there were 3 times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there were.
  • The vast majority of us think Britain is the foremost, or at least a top three contributor to the EU, when it is actually fourth.
  • We grossly underestimates the investment of Europe into the UK (guessed 30% vs. actual 48%), whilst imagining that China invests ~20% as opposed to its actual 1%.
  • Almost half of the population overestimates the amount of money sent abroad for child benefits by 40-100 times.
  • 40% of the public are entirely unaware that MEPs are elected by member states, such as the UK.

That is to say the British public were by and large ignorant of the facts on many to all of the major issues surrounding the question of EU membership.

No doubt some Remain voters would have been ignorant of the issues too, but at least they acknowledged their ignorance and played it safe by maintaining the status quo. And there is no doubt that some Leave voters will have fairly judged the pros and cons. However, the Leave voters guessed that there were twice as many EU immigrants in the UK (20%) than did Remain voters (10%), who themselves guessed double the actual number (5%). Furthermore, we can gauge the motives of the Leave voters from the Leave campaign which was light on facts and heavy on prejudice.

For instance, whilst making the referendum all about immigration, they failed to highlight how the majority of immigration into our country has been from non-EU sources such as India and Pakistan (Chart 1 & 2). Their migration, from countries whose cultural differences far outweigh those of Europeans, will be untouched by leaving the EU. If anything, they will increase if the free movement of labour from the EU ceases. Furthermore, the fact that about the same number of highly-skilled migrants from Western Europe (EU14) have been entering the country long-term as have lower-skilled migrants from Eastern Europe (EU8 + EU2) is also lost in the debate (Chart 3). By closing the door on the latter, we close the door on the former too, and that’s saying nothing on the free movement of goods this policy brings us.

So whether it’s on EU immigration, economics, or democracy, the voting public is generally completely misinformed, and have just taken the entire nation on a course into uncharted waters, where the threat of capsizing is very real.

Never have so many voted for so much knowing so little.

Democracy examined

It would seem therefore that democracy has royally bitten us in the derriere. But is there something wrong with the process, or something wrong with us? I vote the latter. Here’s why.

Democracy is essentially a two-fold social contract:

  1. The voting public will hand over the right to rule to those whom they genuinely feel deserve it;
  2. The rulers will do their best to be fair-minded in their discharge of their duties to all citizens.

(This isn’t a new formulation I’ve actually borrowed it from the Qur’an: make over the trusts to those entitled to them, and when you judge between men, judge with justice {4:59})

In this case, democracy has failed because we have failed. However much Brexiters had the right to be incandescent with rage at an arrogant and uncaring political class, taking it out on an EU referendum with generally minimal research is an unforgivable betrayal of the trust democracy gives them. Similarly, the political class has brought this on themselves — through years of unrepresentative elitist politics they have robbed the poor of this country whilst not controlling workers rights for native Britons. Their neo-liberal fantasies have caused inequality to rise and inter-class resentment to go with it. Hand the people a vote of approval for the status quo, and of course they’ll reject it.  

If we want to use the gem of democracy correctly, both the population and the political class need to take their role in our democracy seriously, and stop looking only towards their own interests. The leaders must refrain from their careerism and private profiteering, and move towards a politics of true social justice and integrity. Cameron, after all, only really promised this referendum to court the UKIP vote, and not out of any burning personal euro-scepticism. That outstandingly spineless decision, representative of the wider political scene, has now cost the country dearly. But we cannot only blame the leaders. We the people are also to blamed, for we have not demanded a higher level of debate, and have long been happy to tolerate fear-mongering and sloganeering, be we the consumers of the news media or its authors.

Leave Voters Hit Hardest

Leave voters didn’t realise they will be hit hardest by leave vote

The real solution is the most difficult one

Without this dual realisation of our responsibilities in a democracy, western societies will continue to fracture into a thousand tiny little pieces. Both in the USA and across Europe far-right genies are being let out of the bottle. Whilst our methods of democracy must be improved, for instance by allowing 16-year-olds the vote and getting proportional representation, the very thing blocking these coming through is the self-interest of the political class and our unwillingness to truly hold them to account. However, the reality is that passing this political reform or that social policy are half-measures. Even the best of political systems will eventually unravel in the hands of self-interested politicians and short-sighted voters. What we need to do, and what we needed to have done, was care more, in every sense of the word.

Of course, the question of how we can make our society a more selfless and insightful place is the million dollar question.   (Soon to be equivalent to the billion pound question). The answer is elusive. Citizenship classes? Something tells me that won’t cut it. This change has to come from within — from a real recognition that we are turning away from the promising post-war societies we once were towards the isolationist and intolerant societies we always feared becoming. The youth in particular must struggle for a better, more honest politics, and hold on tight to any leaders who represent that. But whoever we are — young or old, black, brown or white —  a more far-reaching solution is to become more considerate and compassionate citizens of our nation, and spread those sentiments within our own circles. Revolutions begin within, not without. 

Until then, the future is bleak — and it is not British.

Umar author card.jpg

Ask a Question:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar