Britain is in panic. The public realises that the Brexit crisis is self-inflicted and anger and frustration with MPs from all sides is palpable. MP bashing is now in vogue. The collective and individual responsibility of the vast majority of MPs for the Brexit mess seems to be established. ‘House of Fools’ and ‘muppets’ are some of the milder judgments. However, isn’t there an inconvenient question looming: under which circumstances do voters need to accept responsibility in a democracy?
544 MPs voted for the European Union Referendum Act in 2015 and have set the country on fire (I compared them to arsonists). 498 MPs voted for triggering Article 50 in March 2017, seemingly without any clue about what they were doing. The majority of those MPs survived the June 2017 election and are now the key players in the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. Yes, guilty as charged (for incompetence, deceit, betrayal, wilful disregard of the national interest, or whatever the charge may be), even if they find a way to somehow limit the damage in the last minute. However, the events in Westminster are also likely to remind most voters every day of how and for whom they voted in the past few years. How do they feel about it?
We all know the sayings ‘every (democratic) country has the government/parliament it deserves’ and ‘we are our choices’. Having grown up in Germany in the 70s, I have very personal memories of what those words may ultimately mean. By and large my generation grew up persistently confronting our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with two questions: ‘what exactly did you do during the war/on the Eastern Front/ in the occupied territories/at your desk?’ and ‘whom did you vote for in the German elections of 1932/1933?’. The election of 6 November 1932 is widely regarded as the last free and democratic election of the Weimar Republic. It paved the way for Hitler forming government and ultimately establishing his absolute dictatorship. Many of my generation took the view that Hitler’s ultimate plans and intentions were fully visible and evident in 1932 and therefore every single voter who helped him into power should be regarded as personally responsible (if not in a criminal sense, then at least in a moral sense) for what happened thereafter. The cross the voter made in 1932 defined this person and often also their relationships for the rest of their lives.
Whilst nothing in modern history can and should ever be compared to the consequences of the 1932 vote, it can (in my view) serve as a reminder that some votes (elections and referendums alike) have more severe and long-term consequences and therefore carry much larger responsibilities than others. Will future generations consider the referendum and the elections surrounding Brexit as one of those special cases and are they likely to mercilessly judge their parents and grandparents by how (and if) they voted in 2015, 2016, 2017 and (potentially) 2019?
The campaign of 2016 is now widely considered as one of the lowest points in the history of modern democracies and will no doubt serve as a study case against democratic processes for decades to come, including by authoritarian rulers. Not only are the lies, tricks and deceptions during the campaign well documented. The apathy and the lack of interest in serious plans, predictions or scenarios (in both camps, the media and the wider population) as well as the turnout of only 72% were also disturbing. Anecdotes from Britain indicate that the referendum and the Brexit mess have already divided families, ended friendships and created an almost unprecedented generational divide. The younger generation seems to feel that their interests have been discarded and they were simply sold out. They see the bitter irony in what ‘taking back control’ in the Westminster system really means, namely nothing else but handing full control to parliament, the same parliament that has now failed so miserably in its first test. They may well take the view that their interests and the national interest are much better served in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg than in Westminster.
Can all this be remedied? Possibly yes, but only by the voting population. Voters will need to decide whether they are really willing to accept that the same individuals who have lit and constantly fuelled the fire, are best suited for acting as the fire brigade, the trauma counsellor and the claim adjudicator, all at the same time.
The good news is that in a democracy there is always the next vote, in this case a second referendum or the next election. There will be an opportunity for the younger generation to get off their backsides, take charge and make sure that their interests are no longer overlooked but become the most important factor in future decision-making processes. Mass demonstrations and (social) media campaigns have traditionally proven to be a good starting point. In addition, the British electoral system is perfectly suited for holding sitting MPs personally accountable. Why not run ‘no return’ campaigns in every electorate with the primary purpose of preventing sitting members from all parties from being re-elected? This may well convince the major parties to nominate fresh and untainted (and possibly younger) candidates. One thing appears to be clear: any return of any MP at the next general election could only be interpreted as condoning and ratifying his or her conduct over the past years.
It may also be time for the younger generation to start a serious (and possibly painful) dialogue with the older generation, with the view to convince parents and grandparents to put the younger generation’s interests first when voting in the future.
Hajo Duken is a lawyer admitted in Germany and Australia. He has practised in EU law and designed and delivered seminars and lectures on EU, constitutional and international law throughout his career. In Australia he worked in private practice and held senior legal in-house positions in various industries.