Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Referendum Day in the Dis-United Kingdom

Finally. The finest hour. The day for which all brave and self-respecting Britons have long been waiting. Referendum Day. The pub happy hour when the proud People living under the Union Jack seize their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make things better. Have their Big Say. Forge a brighter future. Claw back their rightful sovereign power. Decide their destiny. Seal the kingdom’s borders. Put a stop to all the meddling by outsiders in their daily lives. Prove that the City of London will forever be first in the world of money. Put the arrogant French and upstart Dutch and Danes back in their place. Tell the Germans they’re still Nazis. Be imperial tough. Say to the sponging hordes of Syria and Afghanistan that they’ve no alternative but to return home. Point out to the whole of foreign Europe, and to the rest of the planet, that Britannia will again be strong, rule the waves, never again to be slaves of others.

As a dual passport holder and citizen of Britain and the European Union, I’m entitled to vote in this so-called people’s referendum, or ‘feast of democracy’ as it has been dubbed. Trouble is the authorised ballot paper has never arrived, despite my request six weeks ago, well before the deadline for applications closed earlier this month. To hurry things along, I sent a follow-up message through to the London Borough of Camden office responsible for processing postal ballots. Back came the auto-reply: ‘Thank you for your email. We will process your application form shortly and will respond to you to confirm your new voting arrangement. Postal votes will be sent around two weeks prior to the EU membership referendum.’ The message posted on the UK Electoral Commission website was less encouraging: ‘There may not now be enough time for ballot papers to be posted out from the UK, completed and posted back again in time for your vote.’

After some chasing in recent weeks, it was confirmed in an email from a London Borough of Camden officer that my postal vote was despatched on 3 June. Sadly, the envelope has somehow gone missing between London and Sydney. Since this is the first time in my life that I’ve been denied my right to vote, I’m asking myself: what’s it like to be struck off the list? How does it feel to be disenfranchised? Perhaps my vote doesn’t really count anyway?

One thing soon became clear: the withdrawn vote reinforces my gut sense that this so-called Brexit referendum is double-dealing, a con, a fraud, in more ways than one. Gillian Tett of London’s Financial Times has pointed out there are probably many thousands of British citizens living abroad who are similarly being denied their right to vote because of postal voting arrangements that look antiquated in the digital age of rapid cross-border communications. These arrangements are not just instances of bureaucratic incompetence; they’re a fraud. So also is the irritating fact that yes/no referendums of this Brexit kind are a fickle democratic method, crafted for simple minds, for deciding worldly things much too complex for old Cartesian dualisms. This is only the third referendum convened in British history. It is pseudo-democratic, an exercise in wilful ignorance. The referendum is without Australian-style guarantees of an amendment bill (specified in section 128 of the Constitution) that clarifies what exactly citizens are voting for, or against.

By posing questions in black-and-white terms, the Brexit campaign has also shown how referendums typically stir up public troubles. Amidst the histrionics, wise reasoning among citizens and their representatives becomes much more difficult to sustain. Rumours, bullshit, lying and hypocrisy– all the great destroyers of the spirit of democracy – tend to prevail. Simplistic propositions render things much more complex. Families and communities and regions suffer division. Not even party political proponents of referendums are safe: as the British Conservative Party is finding, the initial peace formula within its ranks, the choice to stage a Brexit referendum, may well tear the party to shreds. If the Boris Johnson and Michael Gove faction triumphs, David Cameron (as the former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke has said) will not last longer than 30 seconds after the referendum result is formally announced.

UK’s Leave leader Nigel Farage standing before the latest anti-European big billboard.

The most worrying thing about referendums is the way they quickly construct devils’ playgrounds. It’s the ugliness of this referendum campaign that really irks me. Baltimore’s master of words H.L. Mencken once remarked that voting resembles an orgasm: public foreplay mixed with sensational delirium, followed by calm. This referendum rather resembles a nasty mugging by populists. Energised by a rough-tongued, drink-loving xenophobe, Nigel Farage, the mindset and language of the campaign to leave is more or less summed up by the most recent UKIP billboard: an image of refugees painfully searching for a new home embellished with the caption ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.’ Never mind that these stateless peoples were photographed in Slovenia, entrapped by state borders of the European Union, fleeing wars in which Britain is deeply complicit. Or that when, during the past year, several million desperate people sought asylum in Europe, Britain used its muscle through the European Union to enforce a European non-solution. The big poster, and the resort during the final stages of the referendum campaign to nasty racist and xenophobic hyperbole, show that the leaders of the Leave people are thorough hypocrites, populist manipulators who have no real love of democracy and its principles. What the friends of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and company are in effect saying is: true Brits want jobs that pay, affordable housing, better access to doctors, proper school places for their children. True Brits are also ‘proper’ people who spend time at golf clubs, and at church lunches. They shuffle through the streets of forgotten towns, run-down estates and faded seaside resorts. They are at heart white-skinned Englishmen who like pints at the pub, steak-and-kidney pie, bangers and mash. They are liberty-loving people who eat chips, sip sugary tea and speak ‘proper’ English.

The remarkable thing about this narrow and arbitrary definition of what it means to be British is its propensity to magic a declining minority into a potential majority, a ‘people’ with angry voices loud enough to hold sway, with poisonous effects. If the Leave campaigners win today, where will all this fraudulent posturing end? In compulsory bigotry? Yet more murders? Forced exclusions of those who don’t fit the definition of normality? Clement Attlee was right: when the chips are down, and people feel humiliation and grow stressed by unemployment and the disintegration of their former lives, referendums are typically a ‘device of dictators and demagogues’.

Referendums are fraudulent in yet another sense: promising closure, they typically produce uncertainty, and unintended consequences. Often their unexpected effects are perverse. If the Leave camp loses, for instance, their leaders will trigger yet more political confusion, first by crying foul, then by demanding another referendum sometime in the future. Not only that: if today’s referendum favours British withdrawal from the European Union, Scotland may well secede from the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland might suffer the re-imposition of customs posts and immigration checks. All this will most likely result in the break-up of Britain – its weakening, not its recovery. The Labour Party will meanwhile find it impossible to recover support among the pinched bottom of English and Welsh society. It will be permanently reduced to a minority party. Ugly outbursts against ‘foreigners’ by frightened and disaffected white trash will undoubtedly grow stronger. Murdered MP Jo Cox’s plea for the British to remain tolerant and welcoming of diversity will be ignominiously brushed aside. And, as George Soros has just warned, if a post-Cameron government chooses to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom will be forced to leave the single market, thereby pushing the country into a more socially divisive phase of Japanese-style economic stagnation. The already unsustainable gap between rich and poor will widen, with incalculable personal, social and political consequences.

Finally, in time, with years of wrangling about the terms and conditions of withdrawal from the European Union, this referendum will have the long-term effect of highlighting what is arguably the biggest 21st-century challenge so far unsolved in matters of democracy, and its future: the task of re-imagining democracy in cross-border settings. Since growing volumes of ecological, economic and political problems cannot be handled, let alone solved, by territorial states alone, the question is whether democracy can come to stand for much more than periodic elections within territorial state settings? If so, how might new institutional mechanisms be invented to enable citizens and their chosen representatives to publicly monitor and restrain the exercise of arbitrary power? Practise new forms of stewardship of the biosphere in which we dwell? Rein in corporations, neighbouring states and international bodies blessed with alphabet names like the ECB, the IMF and the WTO?

Since I plan to send (by post, of course) a copy of this field note to the Counting Officer at the London Borough of Camden, I will end with a confession. So struck have I been by the foul-mouthed fraudulence of this referendum that I might easily have been tempted to spoil my ballot paper, to ‘vote informal’, as we say down here in the southern hemisphere. I cannot say what I would have written on the spoiled ballot paper. But it doesn’t matter. Given that today’s result looks likely to be a cliff-hanger, and since the whole matter of the future of Europe is serious business, highly consequential for the rest of the world, I would surely have cast a formal vote. Holding my breath, pinching my nose, hoping against hope for a better future, despite all the current perverse trends, I most definitely would have collected my ballot paper, picked up a pencil and carefully placed a cross in box number one: ‘Remain a member of the European Union’.