LONDON – In a recent speech, John Major, the British prime minister from 1990 to 1997, declared that “the tyranny of the majority has never applied in a democracy and it should not apply in this particular democracy.” He could not accept that those who voted to “remain” in the June 23 referendum on membership of the European Union should have no say on the terms of Britain’s departure from the grouping.
According to the official count recorded by the electoral commission, just over 17.4 million votes (51.9 percent of those voting) were cast for “leave,” against 16.13 million (48.1 percent) for “remain.” The number of registered electors is 46.5 million and there was a 72 percent turnout. Thus, only some 37.4 percent of the electorate supported “leave” in a referendum that was always described as “advisory.”
The campaigners for Brexit, having won a small majority for leaving the EU, are now demanding — not merely as Prime Minister Teresa May has frequently declared that “Brexit means Brexit” — but that their interpretation of Brexit should become government policy. They demand that Britain leave the single market and the customs union, and refuse to accept that this is likely to be damaging to the British economy. Warnings by economists are simply rejected as “scare-mongering.” Economic forecasters are dismissed as useless “experts.”
The leading Brexiters have become increasingly assertive in their demands and some have even condemned as “traitors” the judges in the High Court who recently ruled that the British government could not invoke the article in the EU Treaty covering withdrawal from the union (Article 50) without seeking the approval of Parliament.
The government has appealed to the Supreme Court against the ruling. The decision of the court in this appeal may depend on whether a state invoking Article 50 has the right to retract invocation of the article if satisfactory terms for withdrawal cannot be agreed.
The opposition parties and many members of the Conservative Party have been pressing the government to explain its aims in the negotiations in more detail and how it proposes to achieve them.
May and her ministers have so far refused to reveal any details of their plans for the negotiations, fearing this might compromise their ability to get the best terms for Britain. Some observers question this stance, arguing that the negotiations are not a game of poker.
The British government almost certainly has not yet come to any conclusion about the concessions they may eventually be forced to make when they are eventually compelled to recognize that they will not be able to achieve a bargain under which Britain “has its cake and eats it.”
May has said that control of British borders, i.e. limits on immigration, are a red line for her, but EU leaders have made it clear that freedom of movement is nonnegotiable. Moreover, many British companies and organizations need to be able to employ people from EU countries.
The British government has promised Nissan Motor Co. that it will not be disadvantaged as a result of Brexit. This implies at least that Britain expects to be able to achieve not only access to the single market in vehicles and parts, but also that Britain will abide by EU regulations on standards.
The British system of democracy is based on a “winner takes all” principle. British constituencies all elect a single member. The candidate who wins the most votes even if he gains well under half the ballots cast wins the seat and can only be ousted at the next election. Proposals for some element of proportional representation have always been thrown out.
This system has the advantage, or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, that it helps to achieve a decisive government and reduces the likelihood of coalition governments.
Unlike other parliamentary systems where members sit in a semicircle, in the “mother of parliaments,” the title the British claim for the House of Commons, the governing party sits on one side and the opposition on the other, with third parties and uncommitted members on what are termed cross benches.
The shape of the House of Commons and British tradition engender confrontation. Prime minister’s questions, which are a ritual feature of every Wednesday when Parliament is sitting, turn into a duel between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. Wit and sarcasm, rather than invective, are the chosen weapons in a contest now televised.
The British pride themselves on their adherence to fair play and tolerance. They also uphold the principle of nondiscrimination and equality of opportunity. But this does not unfortunately always lead to the views of a minority being given due weight in shaping policy: Attempts to reach consensus are often rejected as wooly-minded. The minority must accept the majority view even if the “majority” in fact represents a minority of the electorate.
The main reasons why a small majority voted for “leave” are far from clear. The generally accepted view is that the vote was basically one of protest. Voters were not happy with the status quo, in which a small rich elite flourishes; they wanted change even though they did not know what kind of change they wanted. They did not like bureaucracy and objected to British money going to Brussels. They were unhappy to see increased numbers of migrants filling British jobs, houses, schools and hospitals.
Neither the Brexiters nor the “Remainers” dealt properly in the referendum campaign with these concerns. The Brexiters made promises that could never be met and which they now laugh off while the Remainers made economic forecasts of doom, which were exaggerated, at least in the short run.
May is conscious of the yearnings for change and for a fairer and more equal society, but her party is split while the opposition is enfeebled by infighting. Now, with the increasing threats to peace, security and prosperity, should be the time for consensus building but this seems like “pie in the sky.”
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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