Lessons from Brexit referendum
Posted on June 27th, 2016

Janaki Chandraratna Courtesy The Island

The Brexit referendum is a historic event for both the UK and the rest of the world. Britain voted to exit from the European Union (EU), with a vote of 52% to 48%, after 43 years of membership since 1973.

The Exit camp listed 20 good reasons for Britain to leave the EU. The main reason was to regain the lost sovereignty and independence of the country. Britons perceive this as a historic decision as they managed to regain right to decide and control the country’s future. The sheer numbers of uncontrolled migration due to the free movement laws within the EU, and the inability to select ‘skilled’ and ‘desired’ workers/migrants were significant concerns to Britons. According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, the net migration to Britain from the EU was 184,000 a year and in 2014 around 3 million people (5% of the British population) living in the UK were citizens of the Union. The uncontrolled migration to the UK and the EU’s open border policies had a detrimental impact on public safety of the country, as there was no mechanism to isolate ‘undesirables’, entering Britain. It is reported that British jails have held 10,000 foreign prisoners in recent times. The exposure to potential terrorist attacks was also significant as demonstrated in the Paris strikes in 2015.

Apart from sovereignty, independence and border security issues, the impact of European migration on health services, housing, schools and employment was highlighted in the campaign. The net contribution of (8.5 billion pounds in 2015) for the maintenance of the Brussels EU Parliament, the interference of the European Court of Justice on British legal decisions, the potential entry of Turkey to EU, depressed economic growth of EU, restrictions on business with the EU ‘single market’ concept, are some of the other issues that loomed high in the British referendum.

The British experience with the EU is no doubt, has parallels to the Sri Lankan current political situation. We are faced with several unprecedented and unknown changes to the integrity of our country as a sovereign state. The proposed ECTA agreement, constitutional changes, reconciliation with minor ethnic groups, the progressive dismantlement of our defence and judicial systems are some of the issues plaguing the country in present times. We, however, are in a worse situation than Britain, as these changes are being undertaken covertly without sufficient exposure to parliamentary debate. The public is least informed because of the surreptitious gags on the media and name and shame games played by parliamentary leaders on journalists. The Prime Minister and the President too, appear to have disparate views on some of the main strategies and outcomes. This uncertainty has created a speculative environment with distrust and enmity. Britain has a clean slate when it comes to party politics. No party, in Britain, would like to deceive the electorate by unsubstantiated claims and commitments. A prime lesson we need to take from the British experience is the transparency of the political process and the need to respect the majority view on matters of national significance.

David Cameron’s resignation as the Prime Minister, which he need not have done, displays his integrity as a world leader. Although the referendum is not binding on him personally, he respected the majority decision to leave the EU even-though he was convinced in the antithesis. He saw the need to resign from his position as the Prime Minister, so that a person championing the cause can take charge of the country. He did not opt to do deals with EU countries to reverse the decision or bribe his parliamentary colleagues with perks, to disregard the referendum to strengthen his position as the party leader and Prime Minister.

Also, in voting to leave the Union, Britons did put the country before their pockets. They were fully aware of the negative impact on the economy, at least in the short term, but they valued independence, as they were convinced of the fact that a reclaim of lost independence would be a near impossibility by peaceful means than propping up a dented economy.

Sri Lankans are hopeful that there would be a referendum on constitutional changes and this is an opportunity for Sri Lankans, to put the country first, before personal benefits or local party politics. The vote will be on our existence as a sovereign nation as an undivided country. The British referendum was also on, a single issue to remain or exit from the EU, and was based on a conscience vote. Tory or Labor party politics did not persuade Britons. The result of the referendum was not a party victory. The Sri Lankan referendum should also be based on a conscience vote for a single issue. Party persuasions should not be a consideration. Our MPs also should have a conscience vote, when they vote in parliament on issues of national significance such as the Constitution. In having a conscience vote, they would not have to consider selling the country for fear of losing the perks they currently enjoy.

It is with despair that I note the contrast here. Britain has been a leader of democracy for many more years than Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka, too, has experienced democracy for 68 years and it is fair to say that we are fully aware of the democratic principles. Yet, we have destroyed almost each and every one of them in recent times. Firstly, there was a question on the validity of the electoral rolls and the unprecedented voter turnouts in the northern districts at the Jan. 08, 2015 presidential polls. Later, there were leaked allegations of deals with minor parties, conspiracies hatched in foreign countries, appointment of defeated candidates to ministerial positions, appointment of key government officers contradicting state regulations, by-passing the legal system in pursuit of politically motivated arrests and many more incidents which are not characteristic of Sri Lanka a decade or two ago. This type of inexcusable activity is unheard in British or any other democratic regime in the Western World. The British referendum was transparent, allowed sufficient time for public debate and had no allegations of rigging. This, indeed, is a feature we need to emulate when it comes to the conduct of elections and referendum.

Janaki Chandraratna

2 Responses to “Lessons from Brexit referendum”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Few good lessons here.

    1. The new constitution, ETCA, bridge to south India and if no new constitution then the 13A must be put to a referendum. They can be 4 questions in a single referendum.

    2. The new constitution will have good and bad all mixed up making it difficult for voters to decide. For instance it will have open federalism and abolishing executive presidency. Most people want to abolish executive presidency but don’t want open federalism. Then voters will be in a fix. If they reject the new constitution (because it creates open federalism) the government will take it as a mandate to keep executive presidency!

    If people vote in favour of the new constitution as it abolishes executive presidency, they automatically pass the nasty provisions in the new constitution too including open federalism.

    Either way the people lose.

    It is very important to be very clear and give people a clear choice at the referendum.

    Question 1 – Do you approve the proposed new constitution?
    Question 2 – Do you want to retain or remove executive presidency?

    Of course question 2 becomes redundant if the answer to question 1 is a yes. But it must be asked nevertheless.

    3. As the local literacy rate is not 100%, symbols will have to be used. However, this is prone to manipulation. The 1982 gimmick of “lampu kalagedi sellama” (lamp-pot gimmick) should be avoided as there is a natural preference of the lighting lamp over the black pot. Symbols should not have any connotations to the voting preference.

  2. Christie Says:

    Indian block vote failed as British were more united than us. Indian block vote and Indian Empire has destroyed the Sinhala majority. The only solution we have is to unite and rise up to the Indian Empire and Indian colonial parasites.

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