Economics and finance, Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations | Australia, The World

28 June 2016

The lesson from the Brexit vote is that a failure of leadership can cause a failure of democracy, and that’s as relevant in Australia and the US as it is in the UK, write Quentin Grafton and Martyn Pearce.

This weekend many in UK and the EU awoke to the democratic equivalent of a hangover. And in common with those nights of alcoholic overindulgence, they may be getting up, feeling queasy and wondering exactly what happened

Brexit – the referendum to decide whether the UK stays in, or leaves the EU – has been described by some as democracy in action. The same could be said for Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for the Presidency of the United States. And in the strictest sense it is true that it is democracy in action – those with the most votes get to decide the outcome. But how democratic is it if really big decisions are made by a narrow majority of voters? Should a fundamental change in a country, be it independence or a new constitution or a major change to the laws of the land be decided by a 50 per cent plus one vote? In other words, should a bigger majority be required to fundamentally change the status quo? Or should the vote need to be confirmed in a second referendum a month later?

So exactly what does the Brexit referendum mean in terms of voters’ aspirations? First, and foremost, it shows that a majority of voters are not happy with the EU and what they perceive to be a lack of control by the UK government, especially over immigration. Certainly, the likes of Nigel Farage and his United Kingdom Independence Party have made this a cornerstone of their platform during the referendum.

Second, many so-called working class Brits are not happy with their current lot, especially in terms of high housing costs and low wages, and would like a ‘better deal’. When people are unhappy with the status quo, many will be prepared to vote for an alternative if they believe it really offers what they want.

However, the traditional political parties and politicians are simply not listening to these deep-seated concerns by people. Too many of them are interested in exercising and maintaining power and offering hollow promises or outright lies, meaning many of the political class fail to engage with the real problems of real people.

Instead of real leadership they offer a pretence of leading, such as David Cameron’s promise of a vote on the UK leaving the EU that was made before the last election so he could keep his job as Prime Minister safe from Eurosceptics in his own party.

By looking after his own, rather than his country’s interests, Prime Minister Cameron placed his country in a precarious situation which could easily precipitate the break-up of the UK with an independent Scotland. Cameron’s failures were exacerbated by the UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had a very lacklustre campaign in favour of ‘remain’ and who declared himself “7.5 out of 10” in support for staying in the EU.

From the start, both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns played fast and loose with the facts or ignored realities. Remain offered dire warnings, but failed to respond to the social and economic concerns that many people have as part of the EU. The ‘Leave’ campaign promised a magic pudding whereby huge amounts of money ‘saved’ from being part of the EU could be spent on an ailing National Health Service, as well as rolling back the  freedom of movement of EU nationals.

More on this: Counting the cost of Brexit | Thomas Sampson

Sadly, the UK is not unique with its self-serving and short-sighted politicians. Despite the longest election campaign in Australia’s history, which has given voters plenty of time to ‘tune in’, how many voters really believe what they are being told? And more importantly, will Australia get the leadership after 2 July that it needs to make the decisions to ensure our long-term sustainable prosperity?

Into this leadership vacuum of the political elite ride the ‘independents’. Some of these genuinely offer alternatives to current policies, but many are simply opportunists playing the ‘anti-politician’ card and using people’s concerns and fears for their own ends. In Australia, we have had Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson, and in the UK we have the likes of Nigel Farage and the almost certainly soon-to-be Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who have built careers on fear mongering or false authenticity. It is also no coincidence that the day after the referendum Donald Trump, who was visiting Scotland, applauded the Brexit decision.

Ultimately the failure of the business-as-usual politicians has allowed the ‘anti-politician’ to both play on people’s fears and then respond to them with simplistic ‘solutions’.

Does Brexit demonstrate a failure of democracy? No. A simple question was put to the people and the people responded. That’s democracy. The failure of democracy in this case comes from politicians simultaneously offering people slogans instead of substance and playing on their fears. Instead of politics as usual which led to Brexit, people in all countries should be informed, and engaged in a true dialogue so that they can make the choices that they need for a better future.

More than anything people need meaningful conversations where politicians listen and make decisions that are in people’s long-term interests.  Life, like the world around us, is complicated. While we might wish that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ offers the answer, there are almost never simple solutions to complex problems.

There are stark lessons from this for politicians everywhere, including in Australia. Arguably, Australia hasn’t put forward a bold and sustained policy position and then explained it properly to people since John Howard’s gun laws or Paul Keating’s economic reforms.

We all expect, and deserve, better from our leaders. It should not be too much to ask our leaders to lead; to make the sometimes difficult, but necessary choices they were elected to make, and explain those choices to people in honest and understandable language. Sadly, this is not what happened with Brexit. In fact, the opposite was true. Britain’s leaders failed to lead, whether they were on the remain or leave side, and contributed by either their actions or inactions to a growing and nasty underbelly of racism and mistrust.

Britain and the EU will be paying the costs of their political failures for years to come. For the rest of us in the world, the lesson is that a failure of leadership causes a failure of democracy – and that is an insight all of us everywhere must learn.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

3 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    “But how democratic is it if really big decisions are made by a narrow majority of voters? Should a fundamental change in a country, be it independence or a new constitution or a major change to the laws of the land be decided by a 50 per cent plus one vote? In other words, should a bigger majority be required to fundamentally change the status quo? Or should the vote need to be confirmed in a second referendum a month later?”

    What rubbish. The UK was asked whether it wanted to join the Economic Community decades ago; they were never asked to become part of a new super-state. If anything, if one applies ethics to your logic, there needed to be a massive vote for the UK to remain in the EU.

  2. James says:

    This is sanctimonious and self righteous.

    So in your view the voters are dumb and need to be told how to think by elites such as yourself? Give me a break. The mob in the UK worked out they were being sold a pup by the unaccountable Eurocrats and flipped them the bird. If “Remain” had such a compelling case they would have got more people off their backsides and got them to vote. Sadly they did not. By ascribing racism to the “Leave” voters is offensive and derogatory to their sensibilities. I expect better from an Australian academic.

  3. Stephen Cheung says:

    I think our democracy is overrated. Let the majority decide is flawed. The main reason is people casting the votes don’t have enough info to decide; it is based on emotion than reason. In a democratic election, the chosen may not have a genuine interest in serving the people; they serve their own interests. The two interests often at odds. Good luck, my American friends; you will likely be disappointed either way, Trump, or Clinton. Should we not consider other alternative? Like a group of decision makers to decide something so important? Of course there will be problems; but if that is the direction to be taken, there should be solution. The key is make it accountable.

Back to Top

Press Ctrl+C to copy



Press Ctrl+C to copy


Grafton, Quentin and Martyn Pearce. 2016. "Brexit: A Failure Of Political Leadership - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.