Ancient Greece, birthplace of democracy.
1,9% margin changed the course of Europe’s history.
In 1944 tanks of the British Commonwealth landed on Juno and Sword beach in French Normandy. While this was in plain view, their German counterparts did not move to close the few dozen miles to the coast and drive them back into the sea. The reason for this was that their direct responsible was asleep and no-one dared to wake him. The Führer had taken a sleeping pill.
Until last week the fate of Europe had never been playing it as close to the margins as that day in june 1944; and yet on june 23, 2016 a date which will live in infamy the British people, or rather a 51.9% majority, decided they no longer wanted to be a part of the European unification process.
Even I -not commonly too optimistic-, having seen the first reassuring exit polls, awoke to a grim surprise on Friday. My first thoughts were emotional ones. Having grown up next to two generations of white marble graves of men whose names were only ‘Known Onto God’ . Brexit was the end of the world I was born into, a personal insult, a torpedo to the hull or the end of a marriage one didn’t see coming.
This is off course nothing compared to the British youth who woke to find not 1 country less tied to them, but all of them gone and slightly hostile. Sixteen million people voted for a radically different future and are cheated from that future because seventeen million decided otherwise.
First on Chinese social media the remark was made ‘that obviously Brexit demonstrated that politics were too hard for normal people to get involved with. That Socialism was better’ Seriously?! You think what you have in China is Socialism? You think that Not-Voting is SOCIALISM?!!!
But I saw the same anti-democratic sentiment on Western social media: ‘let the politicians decide!’
I can not imagine in any age where politicians like Trump roam the Earth, that anyone could give politicians such a vote of confidence. Even President Obama, between his fracking- and his drone-campaigns, deserves more scrutiny than that. But perhaps what these opinions are expressing is their exasperation at the fact that nearly half a nation’s population can be chained to a future which no-one knows how it will turn out and the inherent injustice this entails.
It seems our ancestors were aware of this flaw in the democratic process. One of the first votes ever devised, the ancient Athens ‘ostracism’, where a man would be banished for ten years if he ‘won’ the vote, put a minimum quorum on top of the required majority of votes. Democracy knows several tiers of votes and uses different kinds of majority depending on the situation.
There was a time when the amount of sway you had depended on the amount of taxes you paid. The reasoning being that if you had more to lose you should have a bigger say in how it would be ‘lost’. We have since abandoned -and for good reason- that system and adopted the ‘one man one vote’ rule -only to include women very recently-.
There are other ways to vote ‘fairly’. For instance there has been a lot of just criticism against Caucuses during the current presidential race in the U.S. This is without a doubt correct. However the case could be made that a candidate who can muster 50 full-passion, no-punches-pulled supporters who leg-it for him/her this should have an edge against those that can muster 50 supporters who are merely convinced at the superficial level. It seems to me some Caucuses are built around this distinction. Also, in more straightforward polls, we do not require an absolute majority to elect presidential candidates. If three percent show up to vote, and you get 1.6% to vote for you, you have what is called a ‘simple majority’ and many times this is sufficient. After all, there is another election before that person is elected. So we don’t mind that the people who are sick or those who couldn’t get a day off to go and vote, aren’t represented as well.
In other cases an absolute majority is needed. This is the case in Belgium where the vote is not only mandatory (you need a legal excuse to be excused) but it is also organised on a holiday, so everyone can go. In parliamentary context it means that a majority must be reached that includes the vacant positions. The reason for this is so that when those positions are eventually filled the ACTUAL representatives would not have a different opinion from the DEFACTO representatives at the time the law was voted on.
One of the dangers of Democracy is populism. A foundation of this idea can be found in the this Abraham Lincoln quote:
Populism can work for a short time but it will not fool everyone forever. One of Democracy’s greater advantages is that it smooths extremes. Compromise lays at its heart, which is good as it blocks fascist authoritarian rule. It is also bad because everything gets ‘compromised’ and everything takes a long time. In order to avoid quick take-overs of Democracy it requires that the opinion of past and future generations is taken into account as well. One way to take the past-vote into account is to give a higher weight to representatives who were voted on by earlier generations. This is done in the U.S. indirect democracy, where super-delegates and electors play a part in the democratic process. Another reason for this could be that the most populated states can’t become dictators over lesser populated states. It also blocks the popular rise of anti-democratic forces since, when all else fails, the special representatives can vote against the popular vote (and commit political seppuku in the process, which is not a high price).
It is a lot harder to allow future generations a say. One way is to make sure you have a strong majority which is not prone to change in the near future. Two thirds (2/3) or two fifths (2/5) majorities have been required in many countries to do anything fundamental as, for example, change a constitution or abandon a monarchical rule. This means that in order to change the status quo, the changing initiative must barter, negotiate and beg until it gets 60 to 66% of the vote. This can be costly in terms of political currency but the only way it can’t be done is if your position is totally unacceptable, at any prize, for those opposing.
The plebiscite surrounding Brexit was certainly as, if not more so, impacting as changing the nation’s constitution. It would therefore not have been unreasonable to demand a 60% majority for breaking the status quo. It would also have been fairer towards young people, who have to live in the country for the longest time still. This was not done.
It would not have been unreasonable, for a country that voted for joining the E.U. -and actually knew what the E.U. was back then- , to allow for the past to have a say. After all, the past was when the wars that lead to the E.U. happened and I feel those boys who landed on Juno beach deserved a voice. It certainly would have been advisable for the U.K. to develop an indirect system so that the lesser populated ‘states’ of the United Kingdom were not forced their hand by the more populated ones; So that Ireland and Scotland were not dragged out of the E.U. by England against their clear opinion. This also, was not done.
Though it is said that this referendum knew the highest turn-up, 72%, in recent years, this pales by comparison with Belgium where mandatory turn-up is above 95%. In any case it would have been reasonable to demand that the majority was actually an absolute majority, demanding that half+1 of the population actually voted to leave the E.U. This would have avoided that another election tomorrow would yield a different result. Given the weight of the decision this seems reasonable, I feel. As only a simple majority of the actual votes was required, this also, was not done.
In any case I feel that old people, who were largely voting for a return to the Great Britain “that ruled the waves and colonised other nation’s”, were unfairly advantaged since the vote was held on a day on which younger people had to go to work or to school. The vote could reasonably, if not more democratically, have been held on a Saturday, but this also, was not done.
Finally, on 23rd of June Belgium saw one of the worst torrents of rain of the year. The same showers had earlier inundated large parts of the U.K. in those precious hours when people would be leaving work. Several polling stations had to be closed. With only a simple majority demanded, we will never know whether the course of history was once more determined by the sheer arbitrary chaos of a summer-storm. To change the course of history on a 1.9% margin can not, in any way, be called a victory for democracy.
Counter to what is said on social media, this is not a failure of the ‘normal people’ who were slightly swayed by the populist view. It was a failure of politicians to think, debate and agree on what would constitute a democratically valid result. Naturally the E.U. is far from the one who can preach about democracy. But it seems to me that the ‘Leave’ campaign who have, are not in a position to do so.