Democracy Deceived: The UK's 'Post-Political' Referendum

27/06/2016 17:00

So that's it. We're out (or will be when the labyrinthine bureaucratic discussions that must now take place are over). But as I sit writing this just hours of the final result being announced (just minutes after David Cameron announced his decision to step down by October) why do I feel not a sense that a positive new day is dawning but that the public have been duped and democracy deceived.

To make such an argument is not to undermine the public's response to the opportunity to cast their democratic vote. Indeed, a process in which over thirty million people voted (a turnout figure of 71.8%) cannot be easily dismissed. But I cannot help but wonder if this was actually a case of 'high turnout' or 'high burnout' - burnout in the sense that the campaign was so hopefully inadequate in terms of generating an informed public debate and so hugely successful in peddling emotive (but ultimately meaningless) reasons to Brexit that the public were fed up and worn down by the campaign long before the polls even opened.

My sense is - and I write this sitting in central London where a sense of stunned amazement seems to have descended on the city - that this was very much a referendum driven largely by irrational emotions rather than any grasp of the available facts. I am not therefore complaining about the result of the referendum but about the campaign itself for the simple reason that I do not think the British public were ever provided with the basic facts on which to make a considered decision.

'Take back control', 'regain our sovereignty', 'increase our power', 'bake apple pies', 'support breastfeeding'...these are all emotive claims that are carefully designed to pluck at the delicate British psyche. But they are also almost meaningless in terms of their evidence base due to the simple reason that they define 'control', 'sovereignty' and 'power' in an incredibly crude and over-simplistic manner that has had no real traction with anyone that has actually worked in the inter-dependent world of modern politics for at least a century. More often than not you gain 'control', 'sovereignty' and 'power' by pooling resources and working together rather than going solo.

Democracy was deceived and the public duped because the debate simply never got beyond the level of these clichéd sound bites. It created heat but not light, smoke not fire and noise but certainly no music. The problem for British democracy now is that it is almost guaranteed to fail because the public's expectations of what Brexit will deliver for the country are (and always were) unrealistic. It was a post-political referendum of fairy tales, fantasy and fig leaves.