In the era of representative democracy, citizens have become aloof and complacent about their political responsibilities towards society.
Some are using the historical UK referendum to leave the European Union as an example of the failings of democracy; saying that a decision that impacts the future of the country for generations to come should not be a simple majority vote.
For leaders in government to call a referendum, it is usually (not talking of Switzerland) a choice of last resort; and the more important the topic the greater the fallout it will have the day after. Despite this downside, governments are aware that they do not have the mandate to do whatever they want, even when they have a parliamentary majority.
So they turn to the ultimate tool of direct democracy.
Why are people saying referenda like this are a bad idea?
- Because politicians cannot be trusted to tell the truth in their campaigns.
- Because non-politicians cannot be trusted to vote in the best interests of the country.
- Because the issue is too complex for the general population to comprehend.
- Because the issue will be hijacked and used as a protest vote against the government.
- Because rhetoric of scaremongering will drown all the logical arguments to be made on either side.
- Because the European austerity policies are what people will really vote against.
- Because somehow, nearly half the population will end up disappointed.
Some of this echoed in national elections. Far right, or far left parties surging in countries around Europe as citizens seek to raise the middle finger to their ineffectively governing governments is a good example.
It’s time for citizens to realise the importance and power that their single vote has; to realise every vote comes with responsibility and repercussions.
Whether the UK referendum was a failing of democracy is something that only historians will be able to judge. And if history somehow shows that the UK in fact had nothing to gain and everything to lose from leaving the European Union, it will not have been a failing of democracy, the political system, or (just) the campaigns. It will have been a failing of citizens.
In referenda like the one in the UK, the consequences will affect generations to come.
The day after the polls closed in the UK referendum, Google reported that the second most popular search term in the UK had become ‘What is the EU?’. This is a clear indication that people were not adequately informed about the subject matter of the referendum (to say the least).
Searches for “what happens if we leave the EU” had more than tripled.
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) June 24, 2016
The failure, if any, has been with the individuals that comprise the voting public, not with democracy.
Because whether you are voting in a local election, a national election, or a referendum, you have a civic duty to be fully informed as to what exactly you are voting for and what the other options are.
Wondering about political parties? Read their manifestos, and their electoral programme.
A referendum? Read up on the issue, understand as much as possible no matter how complex. Do not just listen to talking heads; do not just consume propaganda.
On the day of the referendum, I posted on a social media account of mine that everyone should go out and vote, given the historic importance that the referendum would have. In hindsight, I think I was wrong. Voters have a duty to participate in the political process of their society, but they should not be compelled to unless they have a firm grasp of the implications of their vote.
Undoubtedly, some will say that this is the reason that we have representative democracy in our societies; because politicians are better placed to understand and decide on important issues. But who are these members of parliament that will be called upon to decide?
Some are farmers, others are doctors, and indeed some come from political dynasties. They have consultants and assistants to educate them, and a political hierarchy to follow. They also have lobbyists trying to affect their agendas and sometimes vested interests of their own.
But at the end of the day, they are just human beings. If they can make an informed choice about the future of the land, to the best of our abilities, so can we.
Our parents and teachers in school have tried to ingrain in us the “Think before you act” mantra. Actions have consequences, and it’s time to grow up!