Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Brexit referendum, five years later

Amartya Sen published an expanded re-edition of his classic book on "Collective Choice and Social Welfare" in 2017, just after the Brexit referendum, which took place on June 23rd., 2016. The new edition contains the old 1970 text and subsequent developments of the field, to which Sen ha enormously contributed. Some of the concerns of the author (and the sub-discipline of social choice, in-between Economics and Political Science) were confirmed by the referendum. It is well-known that the will of the people is ill defined, that there are many democratic ways of reaching collective decisions, that none of them is perfect, and that the power of agenda setting is huge. All this was confirmed by the bad experience of the Brexit referendum, which was surrounded by division, lies, xenophobia and confusion. In the new 2017 Preface of the book, Sen writes:

"Open discussion with extensive public reach and scrutiny can have a powerfully positive role in making elections and votes better informed (...). For example, the political disarray related to the British vote on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union is at least partly due to to the factual distortions that were widely disseminated before the vote. Indeed, as I write this Preface in the summer following the vote, the Leave campaign seems to be presenting clarifications -often involving corrections- of what the campaigners had said before the vote. Just as freedom of speech is important for democracy, so are well-organized and reliable facilities to fact-check." Five years later, with more information, polls suggest that most voters would prefer to remain.

Today we know that the 2016 referendum reached a very narrow democratic decision by a bad method (a divisive binary referendum without a previous agreement to be ratified)  that has disrupted a previous democratic decision reached by a much better method, namely the Good Friday Agreement of 1997, achieved by all the relevant parties and ratified in a referendum both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

The Leave vote won the Brexit referendum in 2016 by 51.9% of the vote after a campaing based on lies. The rules did not require any threshold other than more than 50% to win. Significant sub-jurisdictions such as London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain, as did the youth and the urban voters. As a consequence, Britain left the EU (although, in spite of a "hard Brexit", it remains unavoidably linked to it), but Britain may be disintegrating itself. And five years after the referendum, many things remain to be clarified, even after the UK reached (after a long negotiation) an official deal with the EU on supposedly what it meant to leave after January 1st, 2021.

Before organizing the next binary referendum not based on an agreement to be ratified on a crucial institutional matter that may have consequences for many generations, anyone should perhaps read "Democracy for Realists," the book by political scientists Achen and Bartels that warns about the risks for democracy of group identity and irrational voting behavior. Democracies should be protected from some of its interested enthusiasts.

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