Brexit and the Resurrection of Nationalism

Yesterday marks the end of an era.

In World War II the world came together, but in brutal opposition and violence. Since then, or for the last 70 or so years, we’ve been very deliberately coming together in peace and trade. The League of Nations became the United Nations, and provided a new forum for international relations and potentially the foundation for world government. NATO, while still being a military alliance, has operated (at least ostensibly) on the premise of promoting and safeguarding peace and democracy in the world. The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have overseen the globalization of trade, weaving the economic activities of nations around the world together to not only increase prosperity (again, ostensibly for the whole world) but also stability. The European Union marked an even greater integration, effectively dissolving borders between nation states (in most respects) and pooling the political and economic futures of member nations into a single body. For the past 70 years we’ve been on a global path away from nationalistic division and toward a global community.

Until yesterday, when Britain voted to leave the European Union.

To be clear, this is not the first sign that the trend toward fewer barriers between nations was coming to an end. It’s just the first big, official step by one of the most powerful nations in the world. and the first time that a privileged/colonizing nation has claimed “independence” from a body of the less powerful. While the world in general, led by powerful nations, has been moving toward more unity, at the exact same time small nations or people groups have been seeking a national identity and international recognition, and I want to draw a sharp distinction between that and what happened yesterday.

The 20th century included the creation of dozens of “new” nations, and several unsuccessful attempts. The new nations arose from Western colonies, largely in Africa, as those people reclaimed and reforged their national identities after being suppressed by typically racist colonial regimes. Even in Western nations, there have been attempts at independence: Ireland won freedom from Britain, but lost Northern Ireland in the process; and Quebec has tried and failed a few times to gain independence from Canada. As recently as 2014, Scotland held a referendum on the question of leaving the United Kingdom, a bid that lost with a vote of just 55% in favour of staying. In all of these situations, oppressed or historically conquered people were seeking to re-establish their identity as a people, distinct from their conquerors and colonizers. That is not what Britain has just done.

Britain has always been the conqueror, the colonizer. They’ve always only had one foot in the EU as it is, wanting to maintain their own currency and border controls, and they command enough international respect and economic and military power that they can decide for themselves just how committed they will be to an international body. Even in the EU they are a privileged nation, somewhat distinct from the rest in ways that many other member nations are not. Their national identity as a people is strong, even globally dominant (behind the US), as more of the world speaks English than any other language.

There are many issues involved in the Brexit, and I don’t want to be reductive, but I do want to draw attention to a pattern or trend that I’ve been seeing over the past few years related to the rise of nationalism: racism and xenophobia.

It’s only been about a week since British MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street as she met with constituents. She was known for her passionate work serving her constituents, many of whom are immigrants, and for her championing of immigrant and refugee rights. The man who killed her, when brought to court, refused to give his real name, saying his name was “Death to traitors, and freedom for Britain.” His real name isn’t worth reprinting, in my opinion, and his sentiments echo a shockingly large movement in Europe that see welcoming immigrants as a form of treason. The logic behind this movement is that people believe that immigrants are “taking over” their nation, and fear being pushed out culturally and politically. All of this is patently false, as Doug Saunders makes very clear in his excellent Myth of the Muslim Tide, but it taps into very real fears for uninformed and xenophobic people. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian so-called Christian, killed over 70 people, mostly children at a liberal-political themed summer camp, because he viewed them as the children of traitors (as the liberal government of his country had allowed immigration at levels he believed to be treasonous). If this sounds like the work of a few madmen, consider that one of the biggest political parties in the UK right now is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader spews this kind of xenophobic rhetoric on a regular basis and spearheaded the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum; and the second biggest party in the Netherlands is an anti-immigrant party led by Geert Wilders, who is known for his heavily racist and xenophobic comments, particularly against Muslims. Then also consider that the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States of America is Donald Trump, who is known for his policies of banning all Muslims from entering the US, building a wall to keep Mexican migrants out (whom he characterizes as rapists) and making Mexico pay for it, and accepting the endorsement of the KKK. It seems that the rise in nationalism in western democracies is largely in direct response to the influx of immigrants and refugees from poorer nations with very different (and mostly Muslim) cultures.

I want to make clear that there are very good reasons for a measure of nationalism. Establishing and maintaining a national identity as a people group is important; but most of these nations have been cosmopolitan for so long that any cultural narrative tied to race is either long gone or long since integrated.  (A British woman commented last year (in a sermon in church, no less!) that Britain used to be about fish and chips, and now it’s about curry (like that’s a bad thing!), completely missing the fact that fish and chips was brought to Britain by eastern European immigrants just a hundred years ago while curry as we know it (as a specific dish rather than as a spice more generally) was adopted and adapted by Brits in colonial India.) Economic concerns about the European Union are very logical in a time when Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy, but the UK kept its own currency, and has such close trade relations with the EU that it would be affected by a Greek default anyway. Concerns about sovereignty are certainly understandable, but as I said above, Britain is a strong player in the EU and does not bow to anyone. While I am not British, or an expert on European political economy, the reasons for Britain reasserting nationalism in today’s world all seem pretty weak in comparison to the deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept the West as fast as the refugees have marched across Europe. I sincerely hope that I’m just missing some reasons for nationalist sentiments, or that there are better arguments that strengthen those other reasons I’ve mentioned.

But we’ll see. The implications of the UK leaving the European Union are enormous: scads of policy will have to be re-written on both sides of this divorce, and with David Cameron stepping down there will also be new leadership. What emerges in the coming year will confirm the real motivation for this renewed nationalist movement. So, UK leadership: impress us. Show the world, with your innovative policies and new take on diplomacy, that this wasn’t about anti-immigrant xenophobia. Set a new standard for engaging with your neighbours in this new world that, with this Brexit, you’ve created – a world where globalization, individualism, and inclusivity as the standards of foreign relations are being replaced with nationalism yet again. Make sure this is a new direction for global relations, because we’ve been down the road of hyper-nationalism before, too many times, and we know that we don’t like where it leads.

Vote No to a Referendum on Democratic Reform

Update: CBC’s The Current interviewed some experts on the subject of referendums in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. They cover all of the same territory. You can hear the episode here.

There’s a certain logic to the idea that the issue of electoral reform should be settled by a referendum. After all, if we’re deciding how to best empower the people as they choose a government, why not empower them to choose the method of doing so? It seems un-democratic to change a democratic system without asking the people.

But all of that is wrong, and a referendum is possibly the worst way to decide the issue of electoral reform. Here’s why.

1.The Nature of a Referendum

A referendum is an excellent tool in the right circumstances, but outside of those circumstances it’s a terrible tool. This is because it can only really work with a very simple question on a matter of deep conviction that only has two possible answers: yes or no. If you had a referendum with three or more possible answers, the likelihood of getting a clear decision is slim. This is actually one of the reasons electoral reform makes sense in a multi-party system like ours: most of the time in our elections, large numbers of people vote for one of three major parties, with many others voting for other smaller parties, and true majority governments are very rare. Since we only use a referendum when we need a clear decision, it has to be boiled down to two options. That’s difficult to do in this case, because there are many possible options for how our electoral system could work, and then there’s always the option of not changing it at all. The options cannot easily be reduced to a yes/no question unless someone else already does all of the work of choosing which type is best for us and then gives us the ability to approve a change or not – but then we’re left with the same question, namely, how can it be democratic if someone else has chosen it for us? Which brings us to the next point:

  1. The Nature of the Electorate

The electorate (you and I) are busy people, and most of us do not hold degrees in political science, so the idea that we can make an informed decision about something as complex as electoral reform is a bit daunting. People in general tend to be resistant to change, first of all, so we have an automatic bias in favour of the status quo even when there are better options. Further, most of us will not find the time to attend informational meetings or do extensive research on the issue in the lead-up to a referendum, and even if we do, we’re going to find a lot of conflicting information and opinions that will be difficult to navigate. That’s because of the nature of a campaign.

  1. The Nature of a Campaign

Elections and referendums both have campaigns. A campaign is supposed to be a chance for the different sides of the issues to present their case and win over as much of the electorate as possible. Unfortunately, most campaigns end up utilizing a lot of social psychology to manipulate people rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves. Referendums are usually the worst for this, as politicians play on the fear of change and attempt to demonize the other side. This is the kind of thing that has made our political system so toxic, and a big reason why I believe that electoral reform is only one step toward a healthier system; we also need campaign reform in a big way.

  1. The Nature of Canadian Democratic Representation

Thankfully, we’ve already had an election: we elected a new Liberal government last year, and one of the big planks in their platform was democratic reform. It was also a big plank in the platforms of the Green Party and the NDP, so we should have a general sense that this is an issue that most of the electorate can get behind. But the reason that we even had an election last year was to choose people who can do the legwork for us, who have access to the best experts and can make decisions on our behalf. The role of an MP is to keep their constituents informed, ask their opinions, and then choose on their behalf. Resorting to a referendum cuts out the MPs and all of their resources, putting the important decision on the shoulders of average folks who have little time to consider these options and cut through the political rhetoric.

  1. The Nature of the Electoral System

A big point about electoral reform is that it is not actually a matter of opinion. The goal of electoral reform is to create a system that actually serves the values and aims of our democratic society – that is, we need a system that accurately reflects the votes of the people in the makeup of Parliament. We’re not deciding on whether or not to be a democracy; that would be a good question for a referendum, because it’s asking what we want. But we already know that we want to live in a democracy; what’s at stake here is whether or not the current system is doing a good job of serving that democracy. It’s not a matter of opinion: First Past the Post is a voting system that does not result in a Parliament that accurately represents the votes that were cast. Choosing between the options to replace FPTP is also not a matter of opinion; every other system represents the choices of the people better than the current system, but they vary in the way that they do so, and it will take a panel of experts to determine which will result in the makeup of Parliament most accurately reflecting the votes cast. This is a matter of political science, not one of the will of the people.

Consider the example of energy and climate: scientists know that the oil industry is directly contributing to anthropogenic climate change which results in natural disasters of enormous scale, ongoing mass extinctions, and the destabilization of global climate which will ultimately result in the destabilization of the global economy; and yet we continually make it a political issue, and in politics short-term concerns almost always outweigh facts and projections. If it were up to the people who actually know what is happening to the climate we would leave the oil in the ground and transition as quickly as possible to renewable energy, even at great economic cost, knowing that doing so would save lives and jobs in the long run. Instead it is an issue that has divided the country, and we’ve seen no action from politicians for fear of the political and economic backlash. Like climate change, electoral reform is not an issue that should be left solely up to the people OR solely up to politicians – which is why it is important that there is a transparent committee process.

  1. The Nature of Committees

Maryam Monsef, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, has proposed that this issue be decided by a non-partisan committee that includes members from all five parties that currently have members in Parliament. Representation on the committee is roughly analogous to the makeup of the House of Commons, with most of the committee being Liberal MPs, then Conservatives, then NDP, and with token representatives for the Bloc and Green Party (who are unable to vote, presumably because they have so few members in the House; I’m thankful they’re included at all). This committee is tasked with weighing the options and deciding which is best. Let’s be clear: they are not just going to chat about it over coffee. The process must include extensive consultation, both with the public (so we get a chance to have our say) and with experts on the issue. While the committee will make the final call on it, they must take the word of experts into account. If the process is transparent, then we will all know if they have ignored the testimony of experts.

A quick note on the way that committees worked under the last government. There were numerous situations in which the Harper government sent issues to committees who engaged in the consultation process and then ignored the facts and ideas presented by the experts in order to institute what the government wanted in the first place. This is how we got our new anti-terrorism laws, for example. The government has the power to ignore the consultation process, but they don’t have the power to hide that they’ve done so. If the process isn’t transparent, call your MP. If the advice of experts is ignored, call your MP. The consultation and committee process is not perfect, but it is the best and most accountable system we can get for making a solid decision on this issue, especially if we take steps to hold our MPs to account.

  1. We’ve been here before.

BC and Ontario have both had referendums on democratic reform. I was living in BC when they had their referendum, but I wasn’t even aware that it was going on. I know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t participate, or even know that it was going on: 50% of Ontario residents polled just a few months before the referendum didn’t even know it was happening. Just days before the 2005 BC referendum, “two-thirds of British Columbians admitted to knowing ‘nothing/very little’ about the proposed STV system.”  We know that people in both places were largely confused about the voting system, but “they were strongly inclined towards proportionality, choice among multiple parties, and even coalition governments,” all things that are made more difficult or even impossible in a First Past the Post system. Yet they voted down any changes to the electoral system in both provinces, twice in BC with a second referendum in 2009 resulting in a 60% No vote.

Recent history shows that even though we want a democratic system that represents us proportionately and encourages cooperation in a multi-party Parliament, we will still vote against reforms that would make that system better when they are presented to us in a referendum. The very system of a referendum makes it very difficult to enact any change, whether because of our status-quo bias, political fear campaigns, confusion because complex issues have been reduced to a too-simple question, voter apathy, etc. With all of those influences stacked in the “No” column, it’s difficult to tell if people are voting “No” to change because they actually think our current system is serving them well. And no matter which way a referendum goes, that kind of uncertainty will allow politicians from both sides of the issue to continue to make hay about it well beyond the next election. Which is why referendums tend to come around more than once.

For all of those reasons, a referendum is exactly the wrong mechanism to decide on democratic reform. The important decision of whether or not to be a democracy has already been decided; let’s leave the mechanism that best serves that system up to the experts, and keep tabs on our MPs to make sure they do too.