".....the EU is the region in the world with the strongest protections for individual rights and the most developed systems of social democracy which provide public services regardless of ability to pay."
The UK vote to leave the European Union is being hailed by the Leave side as a victory for democracy. During the campaign, Conservative Boris Johnson claimed that those supporting Brexit were doing so out of a desire to restore UK democracy. He made headlines by comparing the European Union with Hitler, claiming that both were pursuing a similar goal in trying to create a powerful superstate. As the polls closed he tweeted that democracy had been served. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has made his career by vilifying the European Union as an enemy of democracy and promising that Brexit would free the UK from its ‘anti-democratic’ grip.
Far from being a victory for democracy, however, the Referendum campaign and the UK’s vote to leave have undermined democracy. As Martin Wolf writes in today’s Financial Times, the EU has played an enormous role in spreading democracy across Europe. The former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe owe their systems of democracy and human rights to their accession to the European Union, because democracy was a precondition for entry. In addition the member states of the Union share much more than a common economic market. They share common democratic values of tolerance, respect for human rights, and equality regardless of gender, race and sexual orientation. In fact the EU is the region in the world with the strongest protections for individual rights and the most developed systems of social democracy which provide public services regardless of ability to pay.
Second, if the referendum has been a victory for democracy, it has been a victory for a narrow and dangerous interpretation of it - democracy as brute majoritarianism. The use of referenda as a means of settling democratic issues is highly problematic. No country knows this more than Germany. After all, Hitler came to power through primarily democratic means, as a German public devastated by economic ruin after the First World War was receptive to a strong, nationalist ruler who could restore national pride. Ever since Europe’s devastation at the hands of Hitler and the Nazi’s, democracy in Europe has meant much more that majoritarianism. The rights of minorities are an integral part of modern European democracies and electoral systems based on proportional representation which require parties to share power are the norm across the continent. The Brexit campaign was arguably anti-democratic in being a winner takes all contest and to the extent that minorities – namely immigrants – were singled out for scapegoating and abuse.
Most alarmingly,however, rather than being democracy in action, it is more accurate to see Brexit as democracy in crisis. The Leave victory is best understood as the continuation of the slow devastating car crash that has been happening since the Financial Crisis began in 2008. In the Crisis, banks that had grown too big to fail gambled recklessly and brought the entire global financial system to the verge of collapse. Governments were left with little option but to bail them out. Those responsible grew rich and walked away scot free while pocketing obscene bonuses as reward for their appalling behaviour. Publics in the United States and Europe, meanwhile, lost their jobs, houses, and savings - as well as trust in politicians, many of whom had colluded in constructing the financial system that imploded.
Public anger has been growing in many countries ever since, as wages have stagnated and austerity has imposed hardship, particularly on those least able to cope. The Leave campaign succeeded, at least in part, by cynically deflecting the blame for the pain that many are feeling away from UK government policies and onto the EU and immigrants – the enemy without and the enemy within. Such cynical manipulation of the electorate, alongside the post-truth politics that the Leave side engaged in, has only served to set politics adrift from the values of real democracy – fairness, rational debate, and the search for the common good. As Philip Stephens has written, when rationality is absent, the space is filled with prejudice, anger counts more than evidence, and lies claim equal status with facts.
It will not end here. Many of those who voted to leave the EU are also the ones who, in time, will feel the full brunt of the economic consequences of doing so. This will only further heighten their anger and disillusion with democracy. We are in a downward spiral. The vote is settled, but the crisis in democracy will continue to unfold.
You can also follow Ian on Twitter at @disorderedworld