OPINION | Democracy crashes felt around the world
This year there is every prospect that democracy’s two biggest set-backs in the past two decades will be reversed – the 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain and the US presidential election.
Britain is perhaps in a better position than the US. It loaded the gun, pointed the gun at its foot and pulled the trigger, but there is still time to put the bullet back in the gun before a grievous self-inflicted wound is caused. The US, on the other hand, has already endured two years of consequences and will have to endure its dangerously erratic pathological liar as President for yet another two years, unless a legal or congressional crowbar levers him out of the White House.
Democracy is more than just voting. The vote has to be free and fair and the electorate has to be reasonably well-informed. More importantly it requires that voters are not misinformed.
The evidence has been piling up since 2016 that voters in both nations were grossly misinformed through, among other things, Russian-backed misuse of social media.
They were also misinformed by domestic players in ways that went well beyond the usual democratic tussle of ideas and policies in which there is at least some agreement that they will not be grounded in outright falsehoods and that those found out peddling falsehoods would be embarrassed, not proud.
Now that the Democrats control the House of Representatives, congressional investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s collusion with it will get serious. Further, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations are resulting in more convictions related to campaign misdeeds of people ever closer to President Trump.
In Britain, a reversal of the undemocratic vote of 2016 looks more hopeful as more people realise that the 2016 Brexit vote was taken without the necessary information. They are realising that the Brexit promise of better times ahead was a lie. The costs have only now become apparent as Prime Minister Theresa May reveals that even the best possible deal that the EU will accept will still be exceedingly unpleasant for Britain.
Russia’s role in both 2016 events is becoming more apparent. Russia wants an end to sanctions imposed by the EU, the US and others over its illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its support for violent opposition to the Ukrainian Government.
Russia wants to see an end to US-European military and trade co-operation.
Russia wants to see President Bashir Assad’s brutal Syrian regime stay in place and for the US to leave Syria because Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet is in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Russia preferred Trump over Hilary Clinton in 2016 because he offered the better prospect for all of the above aims. This is because the Russians almost certainly have “kompromat” on Trump resulting from Trump’s visit to Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant and they almost certainly think that it would be in Trump’s commercial interest to see the end of sanctions.
Trump’s actions since taking the presidency show a remarkable unwillingness to do anything against Russian interests.
In Britain, Brexit is fast unravelling.
Last month the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain can revoke the Article 50 notification to leave the EU and halt Brexit without the permission of other member states.
This is going to become more likely this year. It is apparent that Parliament will not approve May’s deal. Without that approval it cannot go ahead just on government say so because it requires legislation to approve its financing.
That would mean either Britain leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement on trade, tariffs and regulatory mutual recognition or revoking Article 50 either permanently or temporarily. No responsible government could countenance the former. The latter looks more likely with another referendum asking the question: now you know what it is going to cost, do you really want to leave the EU.
Without the Russians supported by Cambridge Analytica’s data-mining and use of social media to play on people’s xenophobic fears and with the exposure of Brexit as a big con trick by the hard-right to dismantle the social safety net, the answer is likely to be to stay in the EU.
The costs of leaving are horrific. The Institute of Fiscal Studies in Britain estimates a no-deal Brexit will cost about 9 per cent of GDP over 15 years.
Even with a deal, The Financial Times estimates that the cost to every Briton would be about $3600.
The other Brexit sticking points are Northern Ireland and Scotland.
In 2014 when Scotland voted in a referendum against independence and to stay in the United Kingdom, it was on the presumption that Britain would remain in the EU. If Britain leaves, the Scots would have every right to demand a new independence referendum so Scotland could again become part of the EU.
Scotland is very pro-EU. Not one Scottish electorate voted to leave. Overall, 62 per cent of Scots voted to stay.
Northern Ireland is even trickier. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has all but disappeared.
If Britain leaves the EU, support for reunification with the south and a referendum to achieve it would rise. A poll earlier this year put support for reunification at 42 per cent and staying with Britain at 45 per cent. But a hard border with the south and the threat of a return to the pre-agreement violence and sectarianism might tip the balance.
It would certainly see many people in Northern Ireland seeking Irish citizenship, which they are entitled to do under the Good Friday Agreement, if only to get an Irish passport and visa-free European travel.
The prospect of a Brexit-induced break up of the United Kingdom is likely to weigh so heavily against any British Government allowing a no-deal Brexit to happen by default, that a new referendum will seem quite attractive.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the forces of liberal democracy are marshalling.
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