• Democracy in action – better watch out!



    The Philippines, I think, prides itself on its democracy, as do many other states. In the UK last week, there was an exercise which on the face of it appeared to be an example of direct democracy —registered voters being asked to vote for or against a specific action, in their case, whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union.

    The result was that a slim majority (less than 4 percent) voted that the UK should leave the European Union. This result was not only unexpected by government but also apparently a bit of a surprise to those who were lobbying for votes to leave. “We never expected that the leavers would win the vote.”

    It begins to look as if the proposal, made some years ago for a referendum on the matter may well have been a rather naive political ploy—to put pressure on the European Union to change some of its ways—which has gone badly wrong and created all sorts of domestic and international economic and financial chaos and attracted enormous criticism. Not a good move.

    Whether or not the UK should remain as a member of the European Union is not a matter for discussion here. The event, though, does provide some interesting insights on the democratic process and on campaigning in particular.

    Whether to remain as a member or to leave the European Union is not a simple matter, what would be the effects and what would be the terms for example. Most voters do not fully understand the issues affecting their decision on such matters, many of which are unknown at the time of voting, nor do they fully understand the justifications put up on behalf of each side. A quote from Winston Churchill: ”The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

    Frequently the arguments for the opposing views are less than honest. These dishonest or “mistaken” arguments arose during the UK referendum, with important promises made before the vote being “corrected” within hours of the final result being declared. Many will get their views formed by the media, others from friends and neighbours, some will do their own objective research and analysis in order to decide on what they think is best either for themselves or for the nation as a whole. Up to 30 percent of people only decide where to put their mark at the moment they get into the voting booth.

    Voting is a serious business (much more serious than the P500 or P1,000 paid for a vote hereabouts would indicate) and campaigning should be honest and objective in order that the voters are made as fully aware as possible of the issue on which they are to cast their vote. The UK referendum generated a lot of anger and emotion during the campaigning and the result has generated even more anger and emotion. A petition has been made which now contains over 3 million signatures asking for a second referendum (which has apparently been dismissed out of hand) and people are being much quoted in the media as saying they had made a mistake in voting to leave and now wished that they had voted to stay.

    It seems to be the fashion these days to incite the emotions of the masses in order to attract political support. Goebbels did that sort of thing, bringing a spotlight on hate figures, in his case the Jews. Objectivity and even truthfulness do not have much place in this sort of rabble rousing campaigning. Critical issues just get lost in the wash of rhetoric and emotions, so when it comes time to actually vote, nobody really knows where they should place their mark.

    Another interesting factor in the UK referendum is the way the result is portrayed in the local and international media: “UK leaves the EU” and similar dramatic headlines. The result of the voting does not automatically remove the UK from EU membership. It expresses the popular will. To leave the EU, which no member has ever done in its 23-year life, is not a simple matter. The UK government must give a formal notice and such notice requires an Act of Parliament in a nation that practices representative democracy.

    Nobody in government, it seems, is in a hurry to start the constitutional process of issuing a formal notice of withdrawal to the European Union. So, although a slim majority may have voted a preference that the UK should leave the EU, the state still needs to formally adopt that opinion in order for the majority will to be effected. This requirement has been referred to in the media as a “legal loophole.” It’s not a legal “loophole,” it is a requirement of representative democracy in a state with a rule of law and effective checks and balances. The dramatic media headlining has dealt the UK economy and much of the world’s economy a powerful blow, perhaps that was the whole purpose of the exercise, to show the EU just what it would mean if the UK did actually withdraw.

    The point here is that playing to the emotions of the masses in order to win votes is a dangerous business. It may well serve the purpose of some political initiative or power play, but it is of negative value to the state and its citizens. It is undemocratic. “Anti-intellectualism” is the term that has been coined, more like “emotional populism” to my mind.

    Plato would not be a fan of this sort of thing, he was of the view that knowledge of the subject matter was essential in order to have a valid opinion—you would better go to a doctor if you needed treatment for a painful leg than ask a carpenter to treat it. Those with knowledge of the issue should be those who vote, which is itself an argument against direct democracy. Representatives are elected by the people to positions of authority on the assumption that they have more information and knowledge of matters of state and that they have the best interests of the people at heart. The UK referendum was just not the right method on which to base such an important decision.

    So democracy is imperfect, direct democracy more so, absent specific rules and adequate knowledge and information, and inciting the masses in order to achieve a particular political end is just plain dangerous. Oh, and the media should be more responsible too—they can so easily just add to the chaos.

    Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.


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