Brexit and the Gambling Away of Patrimony


There is something utterly disturbing about how undemocratic democracy can be when patrimony is concerned.

In the UK the population is asked to decide on the heritage passed down by two preceding generations – a heritage for which they toiled and died. Yet, the past has no voice although the intention of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers was to pass on something very precious not just to the current generation, but to many generations to come. And they wanted to pass on something very precious, not just to England or the UK, but to all of Europe. Yet, we are now in a situation where the legacy of Schuman, Monet and Churchill is put in the hands of one generation of Englishmen, with no voice for future generations and no voice for the rest of Europe (and the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being drowned out).

Little Englanders should see the irony of the Brexit referendum actually being akin to the heir of an ideal part of a great estate being asked whether he wants his share to be paid out, although such a pay-out would erase the rights of all his off-spring, and would jeopardise the viability of the whole estate and the privileges of all the other family members depending on the estate. Not a very Downton thing to do!

The EU has been a remarkable succesful peace project, warts and all. Perhaps it can be said that it has become a prisoner of its own success, because we have come to take peace and prosperity for granted. Little Englanders, wrapped in illusion, romance and anti-establishment sentiment, believe that they can have more prosperity and more of yesterday by leaving the EU. Yet, the elites of the EU have protected the very common man who for centuries was used as cannon fodder by national elites and who now rebels without understanding of the own interest. Not so different from the heir to part of the great estate. Being part of the estate provides protection, without the estate he and his will be lost when bets go sour.

Democracy is a wonderful institution, and direct democracy through referenda is wonderful when citizens are asked to decide on matters affecting only them. But direct democracy is not so good when the question to be answered affects patrimony, affects also other citizens without a vote, affects future generations. For such questions the logic of representative democracy is more persuasive, because representative democracy provides a degree of distance to the passions of the day. Elitist, certainly, but elitism is not always bad, is not bad when it, in fact, serves the common interest. Centuries of experience show that representative democracy does mostly that.

There is also a sting in the tail of direct democracy. Referenda are not reserved for the discontent. Should the UK vote to leave, I wonder if the other members of the family, the citizens of the 27 other EU states, should not be asked about the conditions for UK leaving and for a new agreement of association. Should this be the case I foresee stormy weather for an island nation that may realise the painful truth that no man and no nation are, in fact, an island!

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