Brexit Mess Shows How Important Graded Thresholds Are For Referendums 

Brexit Mess Shows How Important Graded Thresholds Are For Referendums 

by Nithesh S - Oct 24, 2018 12:08 PM +05:30 IST
Brexit Mess Shows How Important Graded Thresholds Are For Referendums A British Union Jack (L) and European Union flag. (Adam Berry/GettyImages) 
  • Democratic leaders must realise the merits of graded threshold of consensus over contentious issues.

The Brexit referendum and its fallout over the past two years has brought forth the limitations of representative democracy in the modern world. The political opportunism behind reducing complex economic and political questions to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can lead to several problems, which will affect the entire population in ways that were not anticipated.

When the voters exercised their opinion over Brexit, were they fully made aware of the political and economic implications of their government’s decision? Did they have enough information about the nature of the deal which their representatives struck after they decided to exit European Union (EU)?

Brexit negotiations came to another standstill last Sunday (14 October) when the EU negotiator and United Kingdom’s Brexit secretary were not able to resolve important aspects of the deal at a meeting.

“We met today @DominicRaab and UK negotiating team. Despite intense efforts, some key issues are still open, including the backstop for IE/NI to avoid a hard border. I will debrief the EU27 and @Europarl_EN on the #Brexit negotiations,” EU negotiator Micheal Barnier tweeted on Sunday.

The deal will now be subject to discussions between top leaders of the EU and UK in addition to internal politics of the British Parliament. The final shape of the deal will be subject to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ability to garner support for her stance in the face of opposition from within her party and the rival Labour Party.

Are Referendums Always Good For Democracy?

Political considerations were given more importance than far-sighted statesmanship in the United Kingdom. Very recently, there were demands for a second referendum over Brexit among those who could not deal with the consequences of the first one. The debate over a second referendum is also likely to whip up more sentiments among rival camps in the UK.

If referendums can cause so much chaos and instability in a largely homogeneous society like Britain, one wonders the extent of chaos that it would lead to in a diverse country like India. We have several contentious issues like Ram mandir, reservations, Article 370 and uniform civil code which are unresolved. Thankfully, none of our politicians have proposed referendums for resolving them.

It is important for elected representatives to be able to arrive at workable decisions that are acceptable to a large majority in any given democracy. Whipping up sentiments of a slender majority in referendums without contemplating over the ramifications in the long term is detrimental to the trust of citizens in the idea of representative democracy.

Graded Thresholds Should Be Mandatory For Referendums

While questioning the rationale of referendums in a democracy, the slender margin of 52 per cent in favour of Brexit also raises questions about the manner in which such important decisions should be taken. What should be the threshold for taking serious decisions inside the parliament or in a referendum like the one which was held for Brexit?

The answer to the question lies partially in the constitutional procedures of India. The Indian Constitution provides different mechanisms for amendments depending on the seriousness of the change proposed.

For changes like creating new states, renaming existing states, increasing the number of judges in the Supreme Court, a simple majority in both houses (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) is sufficient. For serious changes like expansion or abridgement of fundamental rights, a two-third majority in each house of Parliament and an overall majority in both houses, are required. For far reaching changes like goods and services tax, consent of at least half of the states was also taken. The graded threshold of consensus for different decisions has served well for India.

The idea of graded threshold of consensus should dawn on the leaders in democracies where contentious matters are being debated upon. Capitalising over emotional matters is natural for any politician of the world. If politicians still want to use the tool of referendums in modern representative democracies, they must set up clear ground rules to deal with their impact in a systematic and coherent manner. While doing so, they will also be admitting tacitly that the merely representative democracy is inadequate to run a country.

Nithesh is passionate about Indian politics and history. He tweets at @mlessp.

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