Seeking something positive to say about the catastrophe that Great Britain has brought on itself by voting to leave the European Union, even those on the losing side of the June 24 referendum point to it as a triumph of democracy. On a narrow but important policy issue British citizens were asked their view, and a 52 percent majority said “we want out,” and now the majority will have its way. What could be more democratic than that? And who better to show the world democracy at work than the British, once the enemies of democracy, whose defeat in that role we Americans celebrate every July 4?
But Brexit was not just an exercise in democracy. It was democracy in its purest or most extreme form: majority rule. Edmund Burke famously and concisely made the case against majority rule and in favor of democracy with this: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” You might say that Brexit is a perfect illustration of Burke’s point. It turned out after it was over that even the de facto head of the Brexit forces, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, didn’t seem to have given much thought to why leaving the E.U. might be a good idea. Or does that actually illustrate the opposite: that leaders can be as irresponsible as the people they want to lead?
Consider all the ways that simple majority rule fails in its ambition to be a perfect reflection of public opinion. Like an opinion poll, or like a snapshot, a referendum reflects at best only the opinions of some of the citizenry at a single moment in time. Brexit brought out an impressive number of voters (especially by American standards of low voter turnout). Seventy-two percent of those who could vote did vote. Even so, Brexit won by just 4 percent, about one-seventh of those who didn’t vote at all.
And who knows why they didn’t vote? Maybe they were offended by the entire procedure. Referenda have no place in Britain’s famous “unwritten constitution.” This one was dreamed up by Prime Minister David Cameron to get himself out of a fix. Maybe they forgot, or the lines were to vote were too long. Maybe it was because it was raining.
And who knows why those who did vote voted as they did. Was it because of immigration? Issues of sovereignty, or was it just that they thought Boris Johnson needed a haircut?
When Johnson dropped out of the race for prime minister, a few day after winning the referendum, that changed the calculus for many folks in both directions.
A swing of just 2 percentage points toward staying in the E.U. would have changed the result. The pound is already down 10 percent against the dollar. Vulture real estate brokers are already circling London, hoping to steal its role as the world’s financial capital. In every way, the consequences of leaving the E.U. (and even what that means exactly will have to be negotiated for years) are entirely out of proportion to the results of the vote. A couple of weeks later, at least 2 percent of Britons (one out of 50) might well regret their decision. Yet they are stuck with it.
Isn’t democracy wonderful?