The Brexit Unicorn Has Damaged British Democracy By Scott L. Greer and Holly Jarman
In the two years since it took place, it’s become clear that the Brexit referendum campaign was a gross failure of democratic politics.
The campaign was suffused with campaign finance illegalities and foreign interference. But it was also a debate in which every key term was undefined. No one who voted in the referendum could be certain what Brexit would look like.
Here’s a comparison. When Scots were asked to vote on independence from Britain in 2014, the Scottish government offered them a 649-page policy document on everything from post-independence fisheries management to the status of the queen.
But when British voters were invited to vote on Brexit, they were offered nowhere near as much information. There was no specification of what leaving would mean, how it would work or what the costs might be. Into the vacuum of information rushed misperception and lies.
Brexit remains ill-defined because it promised the impossible – a mythical unicorn of sovereignty, wealth, national greatness and reduced immigration. Such a package is attractive, but unavailable to a country of the U.K.‘s size, position and wealth.
There is no form of Brexit, for example, that can improve the National Health Service, as we and co-authors showed in a recent article. But many voters supported Brexit in the belief, encouraged by the Leave campaign, that Brexit would mean more money for publicly funded health care.
Competing demands from different groups to deliver the impossible have damaged the U.K.’s political system. That’s because, for many politicians, the politics of Brexit are now about avoiding the blame for the consequences of a damaging decision.
The problem with the politics of casting and avoiding blame is that finger-pointing and dodging finger-pointing can get in the way of solving problems. Brexit is a clear case of that.
The politics of the U.K. are now focused not on managing or fixing problems, but on blaming others for them. The focus on blaming others for divisive and dangerous Brexit policies will scar Britain for decades, since the politics of disunity and blame will live long after 2019.
Scott L. Greer Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan
Holly Jarman Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan