Britons love to chuckle at the manner in which America conducts its elections. Why on Earth does the election campaign last two whole years, they ask? What the hell is a caucus and how is it different from a primary? And an "electoral college" — surely that's made up, right?
Yes, the British love to chortle at the peculiarities of the U.S. general election. But now Americans have a good reason to fight back. It's called "Brexit." Britain's referendum on leaving the European Union, due to take place this Thursday, touches upon important and real policy debates. Yet even those who strongly supported the calls for a referendum may cringe when they think of what exactly has happened over the past few months.
Why exactly? Consider these points.
1. Referendums are extremely rare in Britain. This one was called only to win another vote.
Years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold a vote on whether Britain should remain a member of the E.U. — even though his personal opinion was that leaving would be a mistake.
Cameron did not have to make this decision. Pro-Brexit voices may shout "democracy," but Britain certainly is a parliamentary democracy — and the vast majority of elected politicians in Britain support remaining in the E.U. Plus, unlike some other countries, Britain doesn't exactly have a history of referendums.
In fact, in the past there have been only two referendums that covered the entire of the United Kingdom. One was the vote on membership in the European Economic Community in 1975. In that case, pro-Europe voters won. The other was the 2011 vote on whether to introduce the alternative vote electoral system, a proposal that voters rejected, instead opting to keep the current first-past-the-post system.
But Cameron's decision to call for a referendum was a bid to placate the members of his own party who sought a Brexit vote. These voices weren't a majority, but Cameron was concerned that he couldn't win the 2015 general election without them. So he promised a referendum if he won. Cameron ended up winning the 2015 election by a comfortable margin, calling into question whether he needed to promise a referendum in the first place. Now the vote is likely to be far closer than anyone had predicted, and Cameron would most likely be forced to resign if Britain decides to leave the E.U.
2. A large majority of experts oppose a Brexit, but much of the public doesn't seem to care at all.
It's not just politicians who oppose the Brexit. A vast array of experts, academics and organizations have come out to say that they think a British decision to leave the E.U. would be a disaster. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that the net cost of a Brexit on public finances would be 20 billion to 40 billion pounds ($30 billion to $60 billion).
And yet, as more and more established voices came out against the Brexit, polls have shown that support for it actually went up over the past few weeks. Right now, polls suggest an even split between voters, with analysts saying it is too close to call.
The backlash against "experts" may be understandable after the 2008 financial crash, but it's still alarming. “What we’re seeing is a rise in the number of people who are dissatisfied, disapproving, distrusting of political institutions, political parties, the establishment, the media and, wrapped up with that, the experts,” Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at the polling firm YouGov, told The Washington Post. “A certain proportion of people don’t believe a word of what they hear from those they consider part of the metropolitan elite.”
3. Pro-Brexit politicians who oppose these experts say things like this:
4. Meanwhile, anti-Brexit leaders have suggested that it could lead to World War III or the collapse of Western civilization.
Startling rhetoric isn't limited to those in the "leave" campaign. Even Cameron, leading the "remain" campaign, has fallen prey to alarming rhetoric.
In one speech in May, the British prime minister warned that after the horrors of World War II and the Cold War, the E.U. had helped prevent war in Europe and it would be a mistake to think that such a war couldn't happen again. "The European Union has helped reconcile countries which were at each others' throats for decades," Cameron said. "Britain has a fundamental national interest in maintaining common purpose in Europe to avoid future conflict between European countries."
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, went even further in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, saying that he feared a Brexit would lead not only to the "destruction" of the E.U. but also "Western political civilization in its entirety." The "leave" campaign has responded bitterly to claims like these, suggesting that they are part of an elitist plot they dub "Project Fear."
5. Both sides have been accused of repeatedly lying in their campaigns.
In the fierce campaign ahead of the vote, Britons have been bombarded with facts and statistics from both sides.
But both sides have been accused of misleading or sometimes even outright lying to the public. For example, the pro-Brexit camp has repeatedly said that Britain is forced to send $514 million a week to Brussels, even emblazoning it on the side of buses. However, as Sky News's Faisal Islam explained, this wasn't true. "It is demonstrably untrue," Islam wrote. "Or to put it another way, it is a lie."
The "remain" campaign has also been called out for misleading the public, although it appears to have happened less frequently. The Telegraph recently called claims that two-thirds of British jobs in manufacturing are dependent on demand from Europe "wrong," reporting that they are based on flawed estimates that have since been revised.
6. There is more than one pro-Brexit campaign and sometimes they argue with each other.
Vote Leave, led by the Labour Party's Gisela Stuart but largely Conservative, leads the official campaign for Britain to leave the E.U., but there are two other major unofficial campaigns: Leave.Eu and Grassroots Out. Despite their shared aims, there has been a remarkable degree of infighting among these campaigns, with public disagreements on tactics and policy points.
Nigel Farage, a member of Grassroots Out, later said that Vote Leave was led by "cretins."
7. The vote has already led to a flotilla battle on the Thames. Yes, really.
For all the very serious debate about the future of the world, last week the Brexit devolved into two groups of boats squirting each other with water on the Thames.
Farage, leader of the anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), had led about 30 fishing boats down the Thames to Britain's Parliament in a bid to show how the country's fishing community had been hurt by E.U. laws. On the way, he was ambushed by Irish rock star Bob Geldof, who had his own flotilla of E.U. supporters. The two sets of boats faced off on the Thames, spraying each other with water and attempting to use their sound systems to drown the other one out.
Brits were well aware of how this looked to the rest of the world.
8. A pro-Brexit advertising campaign unwittingly imitated Nazi German propaganda.
Last week, Farage released a new advertising campaign that highlighted the E.U.'s problems with immigration. The image in the campaign showed a group of migrants being moved to a refugee camp along the border between Slovenia and Croatia.
However, many Twitter users soon noticed that Farage's ad looked a lot like actual Nazi propaganda that demonized Jews and other minorities in the aftermath of World War I.
The advertising campaign seems to provide evidence of what many consider a toxic element in the Brexit debate.
Jo Cox, a recently elected member of Parliament, was stabbed and shot last week while in her constituency in the town of Birstall. Cox, a mother of two, later died from her wounds. Many linked her death to the Brexit debate. Cox was pro-"remain," and she was also a powerful voice for refugees. The man accused of killing her, Tommy Mair, is said to have shouted "Britain first" when attacking her and has been linked to far-right groups.
9. Electoral rules mean that British TV can't air a segment about Brexit from comedian John Oliver.
America's favorite British comedian, John Oliver, finally made an attempt to explain the issues with Brexit on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight" on Sunday. Oliver didn't mince his words, suggesting the "leave" campaign's arguments were "b-------" and the idea of leaving the E.U. "kind of insane."
But British television watchers won't be able to watch Oliver's argument until after voting has closed in the referendum. That's because Sky, the television company that usually airs the show on Sundays, says it is bound by British rules for broadcasters during elections. "Sky have complied with the Ofcom broadcasting restrictions at times of elections and referendums that prohibit us showing this section of the programme at this moment in time. We will be able to show it once the polls close" on Thursday, a Sky spokesman told Engadget this week.
These rules have existed for a long time: Essentially they try to restrict what can be shown on television ahead of a British election so that no one can try to influence the vote. In many ways, that makes sense, although of course the rise of the Internet now means any Brits wanting to watch the Oliver clip could just find it on YouTube.
What concerns some, however, is that it was Sky that decided not to air the Oliver clip. Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media baron who owns a number of British media outlets and is known for his own strong pro-Brexit views.
10. Someone actually thought this pro-Brexit video was a good idea.
And it's been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube.
11. No one really knows what will happen if Britain votes to leave the E.U.
This is a big one. When Americans vote in the 2016 elections, they know that they are voting for the next president.
The potential outcome of the Brexit referendum is a lot murkier.
If the "remain" campaign is defeated and Britain votes to leave the E.U., exactly what happens next is unclear. No country has ever left the E.U. It's not totally clear how the process would work or even how long it would take — E.U. regulations suggest two years, but some say it could be more like a decade.
It's hard to imagine what Britain would look like outside the E.U. and how it would negotiate its new relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. There are a number of models — Britain might try to be like Norway or Iceland and remain in the European Economic Area, or even look to Canada, which recently negotiated a free-trade deal with the E.U. — but Britain may not be in a position to mimic any of them. Some European leaders have warned that Britain could be punished for its decision to leave.
This ultimately means that no one really knows what a Brexit would mean. It could be better than many experts predict. It could be worse. As one popular online meme has put it, it's a bit like choosing the unknown contents of a box over a known quantity.
12. People proposed banning old people from voting.
Polls suggest that the over-65s are the most pro-Brexit age group, while those under 25 are the least. Given that it could take 10 years for Britain to leave the E.U., this has led to some morbid logic: for example, that Britain's elderly shouldn't be allowed to vote.
Thankfully, the idea didn't really catch on. Instead, a more reasonable campaign was launched that asked young people to "grab your granny" and persuade her to vote "remain."
13. The vote isn't actually legally binding.
After all this, it's worth remembering that the British referendum on leaving the E.U. is not legally binding. Britain's parliament will still have to pass the laws to make it happen. It's possible that MPs — a majority of whom oppose leaving the E.U. — could block the moves to leave the E.U.
And some have warned that if the vote is particularly close, the country will be subjected to the worst possible outcome: another Brexit referendum.
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Correction: This article originally stated that the Brexit vote was only the second nationwide referendum in Britain. It is in fact the third. The story has been corrected.