The people of the United Kingdom (UK) have decided to leave the European Union (EU). More accurately, a divided people of a disunited kingdom have voted by a majority of less than 4 per cent to quit a Union they had joined 43 years ago. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London were on one side of the divide while England and Wales were on the other. Most young people voted to ‘remain’ while most older people voted to ‘leave’.
The vote to leave may not unravel the European Union but it threatens to unravel the United Kingdom and has raised the question ‘Why did Prime Minister Cameron decide to hold a referendum?’.
The UK is a parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscitary democracy. Policies and laws are made by Parliament, not by the people directly. Mr Cameron gambled on a referendum to quell an internal rebellion within the Conservative party and failed. The cardinal rule of politics is that ‘never call a referendum (or a vote) unless you are certain that the outcome will be in your favour’. Mr Cameron violated the rule. Why? Because he assumed, like many elected leaders, that since he enjoyed the support of a majority in Parliament he enjoyed the support of a majority of the people as well. That was a fatal mistake.
The people’s vote is defined by the time and the context of the vote. But times change, the context also may change. The majority that a leader won in a parliamentary election will endure for the duration of the term, but the leader may have lost the support of the people at large.
The leader may indeed be standing where he stood, but the ground may have shifted under his feet. Most Prime Ministers are loath to accept the fact that they may have lost the support of the people — at least on some crucial issues.
Mr Cameron miscalculated his support on issues such as immigration, jobs and multi-culturalism. He was absolutely right in taking the position — as any decent, thinking man would — that Britain was a better country because it was multicultural; that jobs that the British people did not want to do had to be done by someone and the immigrants were willing to do those jobs; and that being part of the EU, despite the obtrusive and oppressive bureaucracy in Brussels, was good for the British economy. Many people thought like Mr Cameron, but many more thought otherwise.
As a result of the vote taken on June 23, British politics has imploded. The UK is effectively without a Prime Minister and without a Leader of the Opposition.
31% vs 69%
Prime Minister Modi’s party, the BJP, was voted into office by 31 per cent of the people who took part in the voting. A plurality of voters, not a simple majority, preferred his party. In a first-past-the-post system, that 31 per cent was sufficient to give the party a majority in the Lok Sabha. Unquestionably, it is a legitimate majority. Yet, I am sure, the Prime Minister has often pondered on how to wean some of the 69 per cent to his side.
What the 31 per cent and the 69 per cent will do is not predictable. One thing however is certain: the two numbers will not remain frozen for five years. There could be an erosion of support for the government, there could be an accretion. Going by the results of elections held in different states since 2014, my guess is that Mr Narendra Modi has perhaps retained the support of the 31 per cent but has not won over any of the 69 per cent that had voted against the BJP in 2014.
Is there a disconnect?
There is another way to look at the dichotomy between a majority in Parliament and a majority among the people. Suppose we put the following questions to the electorate and ask them to vote on each question (a sort of a referendum):
1. Do you approve of the permission given to the Pakistan investigation team to visit Pathankot without extracting a promise from Pakistan to allow an Indian investigation team to visit Pakistan?
2. Do you approve of the Prime Minister’s silence in the wake of provocative utterances by some of his ministers and Members of Parliament?
3. Do you approve of the Prime Minister’s comment that MGNREGA was “a monument to the failure of the Congress party”?
4. Do you approve of the manner in which the government handled the issue of a second term for the Governor, RBI?
5. Do you approve of the appointments made by the government to key institutions/bodies such as the ICHR, FTII, NIFT, Central Board of Film Certification, and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts?
6. Do you approve of the government’s decision to pass the GST law without putting a cap on the rate of tax which is an indirect tax and therefore a regressive tax?
I concede that none of these questions is as seminal as the ‘Remain or Leave’ question that was before the British people, but it may be useful to the government to find out the measure of support. My guess is that on each of these issues the government had (or has) the support of less than 31 per cent. The wise course is to make corrections to avoid a disconnect with the people.