Brexit: A Crisis of Democracy?

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Figure 1 Picture credit: Reuters, Victoria Jones/Pool.

Six months on and despite Theresa’s May insistence, nobody really knows what Brexit means. Unsurprisingly, as a leaked memo shows, the government doesn’t know what Brexit means. All that we do know is that we are getting it. For most, Brexit has meant confusion. The concept of democracy has been caught up in this confusing mess. When it comes to the British constitution, Brexit has opened can of worms. Mostly remain representatives were voted into parliament during the 2015 General Election. Yet Britain (England and Wales being the only home nations with majorities) voted for Brexit in 2016. Clearly this is something to do with First Past the Post which fails to proportionately represent public opinion and reduces everything to a two horse race. But it’s more than that. The referendum highlighted how differently we’ve come to use the same word, ‘democracy’, to mean lots of different things on this issue.

Close to home, we’ve seen the rise of direct democracy as a result of the referendum. Having won the referendum, Brexiteers are convinced the people have spoken. All we need to do now is get on with it. They support the Theresa May’s attempt to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision, which, if successful, could allow the government to circumvent a parliamentary vote on activating Article 50. After continually emphasising British parliamentary sovereignty through the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, Brexiteers have come full circle. Now Parliament, chock-full of Remoaners as it is, can’t be trusted to carry through the will of the people. For them, a metropolitan liberal elite with their love of parliamentary procedure and independence of the judiciary, are just getting in the way. The Brexit tabloid press, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express have been keen to push this line about a liberal elite as the ‘Enemies of the People’. Nigel Farage has followed suit, his ‘betrayal’ rhetoric comes eerily close to the Nazi’s stab-in-the-back-myth about World War I. Farage is himself an emobodiment of the failure of parliamentary democracy to deal with 21st century politics. He has shown that you can radically alter British politics without even being a Member of Parliament. In short, referenda attempt to represent the people by asking for a simple answer to a complex question.

On the other side, Remainers are keen to emphasise the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. Previously more than willing to delegate power to the undemocratic European Union, paradoxically, many Remainers now find themselves defending parliamentary sovereignty. Liberal Democrats, and various figures within the Labour party, from Owen Smith to David Lammy, have emphasised that the referendum was merely advisory and was not legally binding. Parliamentarians, elected to represent the people, should choose whether to activate Article 50, the assumption being that many would opt against it. Similarly, these Remainers also reserve the right to call a second referendum on Brexit, the idea being that the referendum didn’t reflect the will of the people in the way they wanted, so let’s give it another try. This may appear undemocratic if we follow the logic of direct democracy. Thus, we see that direct democracy and representative democracy are in conflict. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering many ‘Remoaning’ MPs sitting in strong Leave constituencies, Tristram Hunt for example, are flying electoral kamikaze missions. In short, parliament is a machine designed to mediate between the conflicting, contradictory and often contrarian opinions of the general public: a complex (and often unsatisfactory) answer to a complex question.

When the referendum was first announced, many on the continent assumed that Britain would set up local forums to debate Brexit. This deliberative form of democracy stresses the importance of informed debate. The idea being to ensure citizens knew what they were talking about, had heard opposing arguments and were in touch with public opinion generally. The basic point is that democracy is a process. Its vital values, like engagement and participation, have to be cultivatedand nurtured. It’s not just, like football, a results game. As the referendum played out, it became clear how foreign this continental idea is to British political culture, where the arena of debate tends to be limited to parliamentary chambers, television studios and the columns of the national press. Without localised forums and deliberations, it is unsurprising that on a national level, the debate was polarised and involved almost no nuance. In such a climate, democratic politics therefore becomes decided by personalities. These personalities tend to be media constructions: the result of good media management and spin doctors. As a result, the referendum campaign was framed in the media as David vs. Boris, the ultimate final decider of a schoolboy rivalry, as The Guardian’s results and analysis coverage exemplifies.

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Screenshot from The Guardian’s Results Coverage. Available –

We need some clarity about democracy. We need to move beyond the Brexiteer and Remoaner deadlock. We need to resolve the tension between direct and parliamentary democracy. Democracy is about people power. It is an ongoing process that doesn’t end with the result of an election or referendum. When it comes to Brexit, paradoxically, a European approach is in order. Working out what we want from Brexit will involve talking to each other, not just to our representatives in parliament, but on a local level. Yanis Varoufakis and John McDonnell were on the right lines when they toured Britain, setting up public meetings with space for dissent and discussion, arguing the case for a more radical, democratic Europe. Public engagements such as this need to become more commonplace to inform and politicize people. We need to improve the standard of debate, lift it out of the gutter, before we can get on with doing anything.

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The Greek referendum is about democracy, not just economics

Upon hearing the debt crisis in Greece, it could be easy to urge the Greeks to grin and bear the imposed austerity and pay their debts. However, as Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis (with agreement from the IMF) has pointed out, this is frankly impossible, the debt must be at least ‘restructured’ as the IMF put it.

Athens street graffiti
Athens street graffiti

Others might suggest a cost-benefit economic analysis of staying could be appropriate but this referendum is about more than that. It is about the sovereignty and defiance of the Greek people in the face of international organisations which have attempted to turn the country into a ‘debt colony’ as Channel 4’s Paul Mason has described it. In January, after years of austerity and subsequent bailout deals (which include austerity as a proviso), the Greek people had had enough. The Leftist Syriza party was elected and went into coalition with ANEL party on an anti-austerity platform.

Tsipras reminds the troika that Greek suffering is not a game and the Greek people cannot simply be played.
Tsipras reminds the troika that Greek suffering is not a game and the Greek people cannot simply be played.

Since February, Varoufakis and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have been involved in negotiations with the IMF, the European Commission and the European Bank as well as leaders of EU countries, in search of a bailout package. This package Varoufakis has insisted, must not contain the ‘rat poison’ of austerity which has landed Greece in mountains of debt in the first place yet extensive austerity remains the main proviso to guarantee debt cancellation. Tsipras announced a referendum on the June 25th austerity/bailout offer with significant support on social media from across the world after what has been widely interpreted as an attempt at regime change by the IMF, European Bank and the European Commission.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist in a recent article in The Guardian also suggests that the debt dispute between Greece and the ‘troika’ (IMF, European Commission and European Bank) is about ‘power and democracy much more than money and economics’. He argues the austerity measures which have been implemented are deliberately designed to the depress the economy, measures which will continue if the Greeks vote Yes in the upcoming referendum. Unlike British austerity, Greek austerity has been externally imposed and is substantially deeper and more severe. In a recent talk I attended at my university, the University of York, Amartya Sen (another Nobel-prize winning economist) set forth a case against austerity which was echoed in an long-read in The New Statesmen. Sen drew on the empirical cases of Britain in the post-war era and Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s to demonstrate that rapid economic growth, rather than deflationary austerity is in fact the best way to reduce budget deficits. Furthermore, he recognized the similarity between the current situation in Greece and the situation in Germany after the signing of the Treaty of Versailes in 1919. Sen drew on John Maynard Keynes’s criticism of Europe at the time as a place ‘torn by internal strife and international hate, fighting, starving, pillaging, and lying’ and stressed the resemblance of 1919 to 2015. This comparison serves as a clear warning when considering that the ‘legitimate grievances’ from the Treaty of Versailles were largely responsible for the rise of the Nazis and the outbreak of World War 2, an idea which is the central thesis of the A.J.P Taylor’s seminal work, The Origins of the Second World WarIMG_1681

The devastating extent of the austerity which has been imposed by the troika on Greece is obvious to people such as myself, who recently visited Athens and was left shocked at the poverty and deprivation in the nation’s capital. Homelessness was rampant, particularly among the disabled and the enormous 60% youth unemployment rate has left the country’s younger generation emigrating in droves. Even our guide around the city was recently made unemployed, despite holding multiple degrees from well-established institutions and demonstrating himself to be extremely skilled. Nonetheless, in Athens there was also a remarkable defiance against austerity which was depicted throughout Athens in graffiti form, particularly from the vibrant Leftist, anti-fascist and anarchist movements.

A theatre which was left unfunded by the Ministry of Culture was taken over by an anarchist collective
Embros theatre was left unfunded by the Ministry of Culture and was taken over by anarchists in 2011 for the enjoyment of the community

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There was also a significant amount of resistance against the Neo-Nazi party, The Golden Dawn, who have sought to capitalize on the anger of the Greek people radicalised by austerity. This was also portrayed through Athens’s street art –

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Golden Dawn supporters give Nazi salutes
Golden Dawn supporters giving Nazi salutes

Not unlike the Hitler’s brownshirts, the Golden Dawn has sought to harness support on the back of a perceived international conspiracy against their country. When they are not touring neighborhoods handing out food to people deemed ‘racially pure’, they are literally pulling immigrants out of hospital beds and kicking them onto the streets. Their violence on the streets of Greece has earned them the status as a criminal organization and many of the leaders have been prosecuted in recent years. The eerily resemblance to that of Hitler and his brownshirts is obvious, both use violence to attack political opponents and to scapegoat ethnic minorities. Even Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros described Hitler as a ‘great personality’ on Australian TV. However, during my time in Athens, an anti-fascist demonstration took place in the city centre, brave protesters defied the politics of hate and violence which caused so much death and destruction in the last century. Nonetheless, Sen’s comparison of Greece to Germany is an apt warning against externally imposed austerity which can only be interpreted as economic failure and an attack on democracy.

Anti-fascist protest poster
Anti-fascist protest poster

Thus, I must echo Stiglitz’s words –

“a no vote would at least open the possibility that Greece, with its strong democratic tradition, might grasp its destiny in its own hands. Greeks might gain the opportunity to shape a future that, though perhaps not as prosperous as the past, is far more hopeful than the unconscionable torture of the present.

I know how I would vote.”

Varoufakis unveils radical new concept in the face of troika blackmail - 'democracy'
Varoufakis unveils radical new concept in the face of troika blackmail – ‘democracy’.