Guest Column

6 hard lessons Brexit teaches us about democracy

2016-06-29 17:20

This column open for comment.

Susan Erasmus

Every now and then I find myself feeling jealous of people living in boring and predictable countries – and then something like the Brexit referendum happens, and you realise political adrenaline can bubble up anywhere.

In South Africa we are used to political turmoil. I would go as far as saying that we have a certain addiction to it, as it has always been a part of our political scene in our living memory. Whenever you think you have seen it all, you so have not. And the adrenaline keeps on pumping.

The Keep Calm and Carry on poster was designed in the early parts of WW2 in anticipation of German bombing raids (they expected much worse than actually happened) and a possible German invasion. It was never used. I suggest they use them now with the Brexit fallout.

For once the Brits get to experience the political uncertainty we in SA live with on a permanent basis - and the good thing is they already have the T-shirts, coffee mugs, cushion covers and diaries sporting the WW2 message to keep calm and carry on. Now just to do it – not so easy.

The Brexit fallout is big: the pound has fallen to a 31-year low, two-thirds of the opposition’s shadow cabinet has resigned, Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, Scotland is threatening to leave the UK. In fact, it is probably the biggest turmoil the UK has experienced in decades.

In all of this I think there are valuable lessons to be learned about how democracy functions. We would be wise to keep these things in mind for the upcoming local election in August.

Here are 6 things the Brexit referendum has taught the world about democracy:

A majority is a majority is a majority. And a majority vote is binding. Even if the referendum results came down to a one-vote majority, it would still have been a majority. That is how democracy functions. One cannot, upon losing closely, ask for another vote, or ask for the rules to be changed. Rules can’t be changed once the game is on.

My vote is powerful. We need to know what it is that we are voting for because results have consequences. Voters need to be informed/we need to inform ourselves of the long-term consequences of what we are voting for. If I vote for a candidate/party whose policies do not benefit me or the people in my voting district, I am partially responsible for what happens after the election. Political decisions affect people’s lives.

Politicians – even democratically elected ones –can and do lose touch with the voters. The vote to leave the EU came as a surprise to both major parties in the UK, both of which campaigned to remain in the EU. And yet almost 52 percent of the voters chose to leave. It clearly came as a surprise to all concerned, because no one seems to have a plan in place of what to do now. The lesson to politicians the world over should be loud and clear: voters are unpredictable, judge the actions of politicians, and you can never presume that you have anyone’s support because of historical trends and previous voting patterns.

The personal is the political. When it comes to politics, voters are going to look at their own interests, and base their vote on that. That is not very altruistic, but very human. Not everyone who votes has a wide view of political trends, human rights issues and future scenarios. People vote for jobs, for water access, for electricity, for housing, for services – in short the things that affect them on a daily basis.

Election slogans don’t tell the whole story. They are simplified, catchy – and often blatantly untrue. A politician who really believes his/her own slogans and makes promises which cannot be upheld is going to pay dearly for that, most probably with a shortened career.

Always have a Plan B. When decisions are left to the electorate, the outcome is always unpredictable and a good politician and an effective government should make plans for dealing with either one of two, or sometimes more, possible outcomes. Boris Johnson campaigned for Brexit, but seems to have been caught completely unawares when the vote went his way. By Sunday he was still looking aghast and dishevelled. There is always a future for which one has to plan.

- Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer.

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Read more on:    eu  |  uk  |  brexit

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