Referendums, Brexit, Bregret & Democracy

I am surprised that issue of United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union was made subject to a referendum. There iseprecedent in its history of the dangers implicit in the choice. Referendums generally, despite nominal similarity with democratic practices, offend against reasoned deliberations which alone make participation on popular issues a meaningful political exercise.

It is doubly unfortunate that the Chief Minister of Delhi is planning to hold a referendum on statehood for Delhi. The Chief Minister’s sense of history is limited to the immediate past and he seems to be unaware that referendums have often been tools in the hands of dictators and can at many times be anti-democratic.

In the United Kingdom the Race Relations Act, 1968 made amendments to Race Relations Act, 1965. The Act of 1968 sought to make illegal racial discrimination in public-services, housing and employment. However at the time of the second reading of the Race Relations Bill (which was later to become Race Relations Act, 1968) Enoch Powell, a British Member of Parliament, gave what is notorious as Rivers of Blood Speech. The speech criticised the proposed legislation creating fears about “immigration descended population” and the prospect of British becoming strangers in their own country. Significantly Gallup’s opinion poll found an overwhelming majority agreed with Powell. If a referendum had been held on the need to make the Bill into an Act the Race Relations Act, 1968 would never have been passed. The referendum would have brought about an anti-democratic result offending liberal and democratic values through ostensibly democratic means.

Referendums in fact were the favorite of the plebiscitary democracy of Hitler – no exemplar where democratic traditions are concerned. Hitler used referendum to legitimise his holding the posts both of Chancellor and President and assume supreme power in 1934. He had actually assumed the offices earlier (and the sequence of events which preceded that assumption showed he had scant regard both for democracy and parliament) and the referendum was meant only to legitimise that assumption of authority. referendum was held even during the Reign of Terror in France and Napoleon used a referendum to become the Emperor of France.

Some referendums are not conclusive despite seeming to be almost unanimous. Take the example of the Crimean referendum on whether the people of Crimea would join Russia or remain part of Ukraine. Over 95 per cent of the voters, it was claimed, answered “yes” to the Republic joining Russia. The Ukrainian Government however called it a farce a fake and crime against the Ukrainian State.

And even where referendums are constitutionally sanctioned, as in Switzerland, the results (as in the case of Swiss Minaret referendum, 2009) may disregard the interests of minorities. In the Swiss case in fact the referendum was unnecessary as the zoning law which was in place may not have allowed the raising of minarets in any case. The holding of the referendum, therefore, may have more to make a point than to achieve a result and cause further polarisation in society.

Irrespective of who calls for referendums and without getting into controversies about their being free and voluntary or not referendums are singularly inappropriate for complex issues. Opinions on such issues are usually subjective and based on experience or knowledge which is not necessarily precise or accurate and in any event the range of probabilities which issues represent makes a conclusions right for one and wrong for the other and no means of objectively verifying who is actually correct. There can be many sides to an issue and the whole truth may elude everyone. Answers sometimes cannot be cabined in a “yes” or a “no” and the “yes” or “no” may themselves be swayed by emotions not facts. There are different sections of society with varied and competing interests and general well-being mandates accommodating all. A mechanism which operates in binaries can well result in tyranny of the majority sacrificing interests which may be significant even if less numerous. It is for this reason Brexit results in Bregret!

Democracy cannot be what John T Wenders said, “two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”! Yet this is precisely what referendums reduce democracy to.

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