What is Brexit about? Is it about Britain leaving the European Union? Is it about the disruption this has caused in the world economy? Is it about hyper-nationalism and the fear of immigrants in general and Islam in particular? It is, of course, all this, but Brexit is primarily about too much democracy. That might sound like a terrible thing to say because the essence of democracy is that you can`t have too much of it, yet as Brexit and several other recent examples show us, when democracy is given full rein, the results are often disastrous.
Who were the people who voted for Britain to leave EU? The voting pattern shows that many of them came from the depressed North East of England, its industrial centres, plus many smaller cities. It also shows that a large proportion of the ‘Leave’ voters were older people. Those voting to ‘Remain’ were predominantly young, plus those in the large cities, notably London. The world`s most powerful politicians (Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe, David Cameron himself), a large number of UK`s intellectuals and academics (certainly many economists), all wanted the country to remain in the European Union. It wasn`t quite white collar versus blue collar, but the vote does suggest that those who saw the bigger picture and the more important issues involved, wanted to remain, while those bothered by the issues that affected them personally, opted to leave. The ‘Leave’ faction was also influenced by the inflammatory rhetoric of people like the UKIP`s Nigel Farage who stoked fears of unchecked immigration, especially from countries like Turkey. That the leave group outnumbered the remain group is really no surprise, but whose view should have prevailed for the larger good, and for the long term? Most analyses suggest unequivocally that it should have been the ‘Remain’ option. Yet David Cameron and his cabinet abdicated their moral responsibility by holding a referendum, and were predictably defeated. So in the end, when people were given the option to vote in a vital matter, their decision was ruled by emotion and not by logic.
If popular referendums were held in India on some of our most important issues, what would be the likely results? To start with, India would cease to be a secular country; it would be a Hindu Rashtra which would probably treat its minorities rather roughly. A referendum in Kashmir? We know where that would go. Similarly, if you jog your memory a bit, there was a time (in the 1960s) when a large number of Tamilians felt so alienated from the rest of the country that there was open talk of a Tamil Nadu secession.
Hold a referendum on the death penalty, and it`s likely that the majority would be for it. Most people would probably want castration as the punishment for rape. As the vast majority on Twitter and social media, and vicious individuals like Subramanian Swamy constantly show, democracy and unfettered free speech result in the expression of the worst side of human nature. Give these forces a direct role in policy-making, and the world will inexorably descend to the depths.
That is precisely why a democracy installs institutions, some directly elected (parliament), some not (the judiciary, the executive, the media) to take rational decisions on important issues. Members of directly elected institutions are, of course influenced hugely by populist sentiment, or often stir up base instincts of the electorate for their own selfish ends (for example, communal feelings in India; racist and anti-immigration feelings in the Brexit referendum). But they are controlled by a system of checks and balances: first of all, there is an elected opposition in parliament, and secondly, the judiciary, the executive and the media ensure that policies that are bad in law and bad morally, are rejected.
Nothing illustrates the notion of ‘too much democracy’ than the rise and rise of Donald Trump. A man who is a vicious racist, an abuser of women, a man who would build a wall to keep Mexicans out and who glories in his Islamophobia, is now virtually the undisputed nominee of the Republican party and has a real chance of becoming the President of the most powerful country in the world. He has risen to this position by exploiting the worst fears of Americans, and by letting loose the base instincts of racism and hyper-nationalism. Is democracy dangerous, then? It is, if those who have risen to positions of responsibility abdicate that responsibility, or do not confront and defeat the evil genies who occasionally escape from the bottle.
To end, here is a sad irony: if a referendum were to be held in our country asking people to choose between a ‘Benevolent Dictator’ and our parliamentary system, they would choose the former. Thus would too much democracy defeat democracy itself.