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Britain’s Democratic Failure

Eight years on, the case for requiring that Brexit-type votes achieve a supermajority still seems right. The question is not whether Brexit was right or wrong, but whether rendering such a momentous decision to an up-or-down one-time simple-majority vote is an effective way to run a stable democracy. (Of course, there were other hurdles, but these proved secondary.) Core institutions must be stable and enduring if people and markets are going to build around them. While there needs to be a process to facilitate constant evolution and change, radical change should require a clear mandate that can at least survive normal swings in election results.

Setting aside process, it will take many decades ultimately to decide if Brexit was a right or wrong decision from a political, economic, and social perspective – even if the short-term economic returns are clearly negative, on balance. Unfortunately, process does matter, and the way the decision was reached undermines its legitimacy.

There are lessons for the United States, especially for progressives who would get rid of the Senate filibuster rule so that they can plow ahead with sweeping changes – no matter how controversial – with only a razor-thin majority. The long-run consequences, when election results inevitably turn someday, could boomerang. In effect, this is exactly what happened with the judiciary and the Supreme Court.
– Kenneth Rogoff, Spring 2024

CAMBRIDGE – The real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was not that British leaders dared to ask their populace to weigh the benefits of membership against the immigration pressures it presents. Rather, it was the absurdly low bar for exit, requiring only a simple majority. Given voter turnout of 70%, this meant that the leave campaign won with only 36% of eligible voters backing it.

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