Britain's chance to lead the world away from anti-foreign paranoia: Don Pittis

From the beginning, many critics have said using a referendum as the final word to take Britain out of the European Union just wasn’t cricket, as the Brits say. 

Now a high court decision agreeing with those critics may have given what’s often called the mother of Parliaments a perfect opportunity not only to reverse what may have been a disastrous move for the country’s finances, but also to lead the world away from the brink of an anti-foreign, anti-trade debacle.

If the court decision stands — the government has said it will appeal — there is no guarantee that Parliament will vote to reverse what those in favour of Brexit have called the popular will as shown in a popular vote.

But as I and many others pointed out at the time of the Brexit debate, there are some very good reasons in a parliamentary democracy not to accept referendums as the final word in settling national controversies.

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British border staff escort a new immigrant. Paradoxically, anti-foreign sentiment in the Brexit referendum was strongest in areas with few immigrants. (Reuters)

The foundation of the parliamentary system in Britain, and in the many countries including Canada that have adopted it, is one of representative democracy. We don’t vote on single issues.

We vote for members of our community whom we trust to examine issues in all their complexity before making their decisions. We expect them to take responsibility for those decisions and live with them for the rest of their political careers.

Blaming foreigners

That is completely different from an anonymous secret ballot on a single divisive issue during an overheated and emotional referendum campaign.

As we are seeing in the U.S. presidential election, it is shockingly easy for unscrupulous politicians to drive voters into what may be an irrational frenzy on issues that really will not solve their problems.

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In the U.S. election, both presidential candidates blame foreign trade for many of America’s problems, and voters point the finger at foreigners for stealing jobs. (Reuters)

As in the Brexit campaign, while many economists would disagree, both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have blamed foreigners and trade for America’s troubles.

Immediately after the Brexit referendum vote, those who had campaigned to leave Europe were forced to admit some of their most passionate arguments were falsehoods.

Medicare fib

In a glaring example as reported in the right-of-centre Daily Telegraph, Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage admitted after the vote that it was untrue a Brexit would allow £350 million a week to be transferred from Europe to the British medicare system, the NHS.

“The pledge was central to the official Vote Leave campaign and was controversially emblazoned on the side of the bus which shuttled [Conservative Party Brexit campaigners] Boris Johnson and Michael Gove around the country,” the Telegraph reported. 

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A Vote Leave battle bus carrying a false message is parked outside the U.K. Parliament last summer. (Getty Images)

The hot button anger against immigrants was hottest in parts of Britain where there was very little immigration at all.

I must confess to a personal interest in the matter. The value of my small pension from a few years at the BBC is now even smaller as the pound has plunged against world currencies.

Perhaps, as Johnson said this week using a slightly worrying term, the post-Brexit economy will eventually be a “titanic success,” and by the time I begin collecting my BBC pension it will be as valuable as a sunken treasure.

But as much as I may have been affected by the Brexit vote, ordinary Britons with their savings and future income denominated in pounds have been affected much, much more. For them, almost everything is now more expensive.

Their dominance in European finance is threatened. While some manufacturers are pleased by the low pound, European businesses are reconsidering the location of their headquarters.

Voter’s remorse

Right after the referendum many of those who voted Leave said they had only done it to warn the government, thinking, as polls and even bookies had been saying, the Brexit side would never win. 

“I would go back to the polling station and vote to stay simply because this morning the reality is hitting in,” said one pro-Brexit voter

It would be reasonable to think that a new referendum today would have a different result.

This is one of the problems with referendums. Unlike even the hottest parliamentary debate, referendums reflect a single feverish instant, like murder or suicide, done in a moment’s passion and, in the case of murder at least, long regretted.

Perhaps the worst thing about the Brexit debate was that it tapped into a vein of paranoid anti-foreignism that seems to be spreading around the world, tied up to a resurgence of nationalism, that George Orwell called ”power-hunger tempered by self-deception.”

It may be that even with the deception and feverish anger stripped away, parliamentarians will decide that Brexit still is best for Britain.

But maybe after careful consideration, they’ll decide that they do not want to associate their names forever with wrenching Britain out of Europe, pretending that foreigners, and not British national policy, are to blame for inequality and public anger. 

And if Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t like the result, she can go to the people again. Not with a referendum but with a parliamentary election. 

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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