Dealing with Denial: Cause and Cure of Brexit

For our understanding of history we like to distinguish between structural developments and contingencies.

Examples of structure would be the rise of the world population and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Obviously, various authors have various suggestions for what they consider to be structure, but the lack of consensus generally doesn’t matter as long as the discussion continues, and as long as people are aware that there are different points of view. It is rather tricky to identify structure for the here and now because it might require the perspective of some centuries to arrive at proper evaluation.

There are also major contingent events that shaped developments. The collapse of civilisation in 1177 BC would be a perfect storm. Caesar might not have crossed the Rubicon. His Alea iacta indicates that he took a calculated risk and the outcome might have been different. If the weather had been better then perhaps the Armada had conquered England and saved the world for Catholicism.

Thus we distinguish structure and relevant and irrelevant contingency.

Brexit came with such surprise that we are still discussing how it could have happened. It very much looks like a perfect storm. The 2016 referendum result has many curious aspects. The referendum question itself doesn’t fit the requirements of a scientifically warranted statistical questionnaire – and the British Electoral Commission doesn’t mind. Even in 2017 17% of UK voters put Remain between different options for Leave, and those of them who voted Leave in 2016 might not have voted so if their preferred option might not materialise (see here). Hannes Grassegger & Mikael Krogerus point to media manipulation. Referenda are instruments of populism, and the better model of democracy is representative democracy. Chris Patten rightly remarks that the UK House of Commons had more options than Theresa May suggests:

“The Brexit referendum last June was itself a disaster. A parliamentary democracy should never turn to such populist devices. Even so, May could have reacted to the 52 per cent vote to quit Europe by saying that she would hand the negotiations to a group of ministers who believed in this outcome and then put the result of the talks in due course to parliament and the people. Instead, she turned the whole of her government into a Brexit machine, even though she had always wished to remain in the EU. Her government’s motto is now “Brexit or bust.” Sadly, we will probably get both.”

Structural cause of Brexit

My take of the structural cause of Brexit is clarified by the following table. We distinguish Euro and Non-Euro countries versus the political structures of district representation (DR) and equal or proportional representation (EPR).

District representation (DR) Equal or proportional representation (EPR)
Euro France Holland (natural quota)
Germany (threshold 5%)
Non-Euro UK (Brexit) Sweden (threshold 4%)
Norway (non-EU, threshold 4%)

Update 2018-02-27: On the distinction between DR and EPR, there are: (1) this short overview of elementary statistics with an application to votes and seats, (2) a deconstruction of the disarray in the “political science on electoral systems” (1W1V), and (3) details on the suggestion for an inequality or disproportionality measure (SDID).

In the special Brexit edition of BJPIR, Helen Thompson discusses inevitability and contingency, and concludes that the position of the UK as a non-Euro country in a predominantly Eurozone EU became politically untenable.

  • For the voters in the UK, migration was a major issue. The world financial crisis of 2007+ and the contractionary policies of the Eurozone turned the UK into a “job provider of last resort”.
  • For the political elite, the spectre of the Euro doomed large. Given the theory of the optimal currency area, the Eurozone must further integrate or break up. The UK didn’t want to join the Euro and thus found itself at the fringe of the EU, in an increasing number of issues. With the increasing loss of power and influence on developments, more and more politicians saw less and less reason to participate.

Thompson regards the economic angle as a sufficient structural cause. My take is that it is only necessary, and that another necessary element is the form of parliamentarian representation. In my recent paper One woman, one vote. Though not in the USA, UK and France, with the focus on this parlementarian dimension, I forward the diagnosis that the UK political system is the main cause. Brexit is not the proof of a successful UK political system but proof of its failure.

  • The UK has district representation (DR). UKIP got 12.5% of the votes but only 1 seat in a house of 650 seats. David Cameron saw that crucial seats of his Conservatives were being challenged by UKIP. Such a threat may be amplified under DR. This explains Cameron’s political ploy to call a referendum.
  • If the UK had had equal or proportional representation (EPR), the UKIP protest vote could have been contained, and the UK would have had more scope to follow the example of Sweden (rather than Norway). Obviously, the elephant in the room of the optimal currency area for the Euro would not be resolved by this, but there would have been more time to find solutions. For example, the UK would have had a stronger position to criticise the wage moderation policies in Germany and Holland.
The structural cause of disinformation about representation

The 2007+ financial crisis highlighted irresponsible herd behaviour in economic science. Brexit highlights irresponsible herd behaviour in political science. Said paper One woman, one vote. Though not in the USA, UK and France (1W1V) shows that political science on electoral systems (on that topic specifically) is still pre-science, comparable to homeopathy, astrology and alchemy. Thus the UK finds itself in the dismal spot of being disinformed about democracy for decades.

The paper runs through the nooks and crannies of confusion and bias. At various points I was surprised by the subtleties of the particular madness. The paper is rather long but this has a clear explanation. When an argument has 100 aspects, and people understand 99% correctly and 1% wrongly, but everyone another 1%, in continuous fashion, then you really want the full picture if you want that all understand it.

But let me alert you to some points.

(1) The paper focuses on Carey & Hix (2011) on an “electoral sweet spot” of 3-8 seats per district. Particular to C&H is that they confuse “most frequent of good” with “the best“. The district magnitude of 3-8 seats appears most frequent in cases that satisfy their criteria for being good, and they turn this into the best. Since such DR would be best, say goodbye to EPR. But it is a confusion.

(2) They use fuzzy words like vote and election. But the words mean different things in DR or EPR. In DR votes are obliterated that EPR translates into seats. Using the same words for different systems, C&H suggest treatment on a par while there are strict logical differences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights only fits with EPR. Science would use strict distinctions, like “vote in DR” and “vote in EPR”. Political science is still too close to colloquial language, and thus prone to confusion. Obviously I agree that it is difficult to define democracy, and that there are various systems, each with a historical explanation. But science requires clear terms. (See this Varieties of Democracy project, and check that they still have to do a lot too.)

(3) There is a statistical relationship between a measure of disproportionality (EGID) and a measure of the concentrated number of parties (CNP). C&H interprete the first as “interest-representation” and the latter as “accountability”. An interpretation is something else than a model. Using the statistical regularity, they claim to have found a trade-off relation between interest-representation and accountability. Instead, the scientific approach would be to try explain the statistical regularity for what it is. The suggested interpretation is shaky at best. One cannot use a statistical regularity as an argument on content and political principle (like One woman, one vote).

(4) They present a mantra, and repeat it, that there would be a trade-off between interest-representation and accountability. The best point [confusion] would be achieved at a district magnitude of 3-8 seats per district. However, they do not present a proper model and measure for accountability. My paper presents such a model, and shows that the mantra is false. Not DR but EPR is most accountable. EPR is obviously most interest-representative, so that there is no trade-off. Thus the C&H paper fails in the scientific method of modeling and measuring. It only has the method of repeating tradition and a mantra, with some magic of using interpretations. (Section 3.6 of 1W1V should start opening eyes of political scientists on electoral systems.)

(5) The C&H paper is the top of a line of research in “political science on electoral systems”. This paper fails and thus the whole line fails. Section 4.5 of 1W1V shows confusion and bias in general in political science on electoral systems, and the C&H paper is no exception to this.

The cure of Brexit

The cure of Brexit might well be that it just happens, and that we must learn to live with it. The EU lives with Norway while NATO has its Arctic training there.

Seen from the angle of the cause via the political structure, it may also be suggested that both France and the UK switch from DR to EPR, and that the newly elected UK House of Commons re-evaluates Brexit or Bregret. This switch may well cause the break-up of the parties of the Conservatives and Labour into Remain or Leave parties, but such would be the consequence of democracy and thus be fine by itself. We would no longer have Theresa May who was for Remain leading the Leavers and Jeremy Corbyn who was for Leave leading the Remainers. (For an indication, see here.) The other EU member states tend to stick to the Brexit deadline of March 29 2019, but when they observe the cause for Brexit and a new objective in the UK to deal with this (fateful) cause by switching to EPR, then this deadline might be shifted to allow the UK to make up its mind in a proper way.

Obviously, a UK switch to EPR is advisable in its own right, see said paper. It would also allow the new UK House of Commons to still adopt Brexit. The advantage of such an approach and decision would be that it would have the democratic legitimacy that is lacking now.

The relevant contingency of the Sovereignty Bill

Thompson’s article surprised me by her discussion of the 2010 UK Sovereignty Bill (that calls itself an Act). She calls it a “referendum lock”, and indeed it is. The Bill / Act states:

“2 Treaties. No Minister of the Crown shall sign, ratify or implement any treaty or law, whether by virtue of the prerogative powers of the Crown or under any statutory authority, which — (a) is inconsistent with this Act; or (b) increases the functions of the European Union affecting the United Kingdom without requiring it to be approved in a referendum of the electorate in the United Kingdom.”

The approach is comparable to the one in Ireland, in which EU treaties are subject to referenda too. In Holland, only changes in the constitution are subject to new elections and affirmation by the newly elected parliament, while treaties are exempt from this – and this is how the EU constitution of 2005 got rejected in a referendum but the Lisbon treaty got accepted in Dutch parliament. Currently a state commission is investigating the Dutch parliamentary system.

Thompson explains that the UK referendum lock had the perverse effect that EU leaders started to avoid the instrument of a treaty and started to use other ways to enact policies. For EU-minded Ireland, the instrument of a referendum was acceptable but for EU-skeptic UK the instrument was a poison pill. Why put much effort in negotiating a treaty if it could be rejected by the UK circus (partly created by its system of DR) ?

Thompson explains that while the referendum lock had been intended to enhance the UK position as a non-euro country w.r.t. eurozone UK, in effect it weakened Cameron’s position. The world noticed this and this weak position was fuel for the Brexiteers.

The relevant contingency of Thatcher’s policies

Brexit is mostly caused in the UK itself. Thompson doesn’t call attention to these relevant contingencies:

  • Margaret Thatcher started as pro-EU and even partook in the abolition of unanimity and the switch to qualified majority rule. My view is that it would have been wiser to stick to unanimity and be smarter in handling different speeds.
  • Secondly, Thatcher supported the neoliberal approach in economics that contributed to austerity and the deterioration of British industry that British voters blame the EU for. There was an obvious need for redress of earlier vulgar-Keynesian errors but there is no need to overdo it. My advice to the UK is to adopt EPR and see what can be learned from Holland and Sweden.
  • Thompson refers to her own 1996 book on the UK and ERM but doesn’t mention Bernard Connolly, his text The rotten heart of Europe and his dismissal from the EU Commission in 1995. At that time John Major had become prime minister and he did not defend Connolly’s position at the EU Commission. A country that is so easy on civil rights and free speech deserves the state that the UK is in. Surely the EU courts allowed the dismissal but this only means that one should look for better employment safeguards for critical views. Who wants to combine independent scientific advice and policy making, arrives at the notion of an  Economic Supreme Court, see below.
The relevant contingency of migration

I am reminded of the year 1988 at the Dutch Central Planning Bureau (CPB) when we looked at the Cecchini report. One criticism was that the report was too optimistic about productivity growth and less realistic on the costs of displaced workers. An observation by myself, though not further developed, was that, with more job mobility, people might prefer a single language barrier to a double one. People from the UK might move easier to Northern European countries that speak English well. People from the rest of Europe who have learned some English might prefer to go to the UK, to avoid having to deal with two other languages. I don’t know much about migration and I haven’t checked whether the UK has a higher share of it or not, and whether this language effect really matters. Given the role in the discussion it obviously would be a relevant contingency. Perhaps the UK and Ireland might claim a special position because of the language effect, and this might encourage other countries to switch to English too. But I haven’t looked into this.

The other elephant in the room

The other elephant in the room is my own analysis in political economy. It provides an amendment to Thompson’s analysis.

  • DRGTPE provides for a resolution of the Great Stagflation that we are in.
  • CSBH provides a supplement for the 2007+ crisis situation.
  • The paper Money as gold versus money as water (MGMW) provides an amendment to the theory of the optimal currency area: when each nation has its own Economic Supreme Court then countries might achieve the kind of co-ordination that is required. This is still a hypothesis but the EU has the option of integration, break up, or try such rational hypotheses. (The Van Rompuy roadmap might speed up integration too much with risk of a break-up.)

The main idea in DRGTPE was available in 1990 with the collection of background papers in 1992 (published by Guido den Broeder of Magnana Mu). Thus the EU might have had a different approach to EMU. The later edition of DRGTPE contains a warning about financial risk that materialised in 2007+. CSBH and MGMW provide a solution approach for the current problems.

If the EU would adopt such policies then there would be much less migration, since people would tend to prefer to remain at home (which is why I regard migration as a secondary issue and less in need for studying).

If the EU and UK would adopt such policies then there might still be Brexit or Bregret. Thus UK politicians might still prefer what they are now trying to find out what they prefer.

Conclusion

My impression is that the above gives a clear structural explanation for the UK decision for Brexit and an indication what contingent events were relevant. Knowing what caused helps to identify a cure. It is remarkable how large the role of denial in all of this is. Perhaps this story about the polar bear provides a way to deal with this huge denial (as polar elephants a.k.a. mammoths are already extinct).

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