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Tyranny in Britain

“We’re out.”

With this laconic declaration, the Daily Mail delivered Friday’s simple, momentous truth to a polarized Britain; the torrent of patriotism and triumph on one side was matched only by the apocalyptic lamentations of the other.

The United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union.

While much of the county’s political establishment was left to reflect on why the unique, albeit tepid, pro- “Remain” alliance of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron failed, the international system watched in apprehensive shock. The Brexit (“Leave”) campaign, orchestrated chiefly by the UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage with the Conservative Party support of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, prevailed by capitalizing on festering nativist sentiments and the growing global disillusion with mainstream liberal politics.

Much has already been written about the factors that encouraged Britain’s decision; these include Labour’s weak endorsement of “Remain,” anti-immigration paranoia kindled by the refugee crisis, David Cameron’s low approval rating, the perception of the EU as undemocratic, and years of British austerity. And yet, what was perhaps most immediately baffling was the Prime Minister’s initial, catalytic choice to call for a referendum.

In doing so, Cameron imparted a vital international decision into the hands of an often capricious, uninformed, and misled public, gambling away the fate of the international system and transforming an internal Tory schism into a case study in the perils of ‘tyranny of the majority.’ For this, the once youthful and optimistic representative of Witney will justifiably be regarded as one of the 21st century’s most reckless Western leaders.

While the concept of “tyranny of the majority”—a phrase used to describe the consequence of majority-rule democratic systems – was first used by John Adams, the broader concept can be traced back to Plato’s Republic. This fear of “tyranny of the majority” also served as a kind of ideological basis for the United States political system; Thomas Jefferson famously stated “Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.”

And in the EU Referendum, Jefferson’s famous proclamation was less than a percentage point off.

In a vote that exemplifies this notion of “tyranny of the majority”, 52% of eligible British voters were granted the prerogative to dramatically influence the future of an entire continent (or world, if you have a palate for the dramatic).

By calling for a referendum, Cameron left an extremely complicated international dilemma in the hands of a public that patently did not – and could not be expected to – uniformly understand the consequences of its decision. He let the under-educated, populist, and often fluctuant votes of a mere 52% of eligible voters make a presumably irrevocable decision on behalf of the other 48% as well as unrepresented adolescents and non-British EU workers.

Many political theorists and movements have recognized the deficiencies of absolute democracy by positing that minority groups would cease to have any meaningful political power against a collective majority. It’s easy to see why such a system would result in vast abjection in the United States. Imagine if Arizona – a state that is 84% white – used a system of absolute democracy. Needless to say that, in the absence of a representative system, Arizona’s infamous 2010 anti-immigration law would be a minor offense within a system that no longer veiled its antagonism towards minority groups.

While the UK is not as ethnically diverse as the US, the EU Referendum has revealed similar demographic divisions. For instance, although approximately 75% of young people voted to remain, around 60% of voters aged 65 and older chose the converse. This is to say that older citizens were allowed to seriously influence the result of a decision that would most dramatically affect the younger populations they generally voted against.

Beyond this, London and Scotland voted to remain while the more homogenous and rural parts of England opted to leave. To many “Remain” voters, ‘rural, racist, old England’ swayed the results of an international decision, driving the pound to its lowest value in 30 years while increasing the possibility of greater austerity measures and cuts to the National Health Services (NHS) as well as long term damage to the British economy.

However, the effects of Brexit will not be limited to British voters; the UK’s decision will almost certainly have serious consequences for the international community, especially EU member states. Non-British EU workers in Britain are now in a precarious position as are European businesses that have formal dependencies on the UK.

By holding a referendum, Cameron errantly assumed that British membership was a question only for the British people; that is, one that excludes the roughly quarter-million of non-British EU workers. Given the severe ramifications and uncertainty that such groups can expect to see in the coming months, the failure to provide a representative force in the decision of whether or not to leave the EU is shameful.

Moreover, the victorious “Leave” campaign led by the patently, repeatedly racist Nigel Farage has provided a precedent for far right groups in other European countries to call for similar referendums (e.g. France’s right wing party has called for a ‘Frexit’).While the EU is certainly a flawed institution and there may indeed have been justified reasons for choosing to considerably slacken the UK’s relationship with it, the EU Referendum was a gift to the far right and the anti-immigrant beliefs that have increasingly begun to suppurate through emboldened xenophobes.

Beyond all of this, only days after the referendum results were compiled and released, citizens and major publications that supported the “Leave” campaign expressed remorse for their decision. Over one million UK citizens who voted in favor of Brexit have already expressed their desire to change their casting while a “Leave” voter started a petition calling for a second referendum that received around two million signatures in 48 hours. It now seems almost doubtless that if a second referendum were cast today, it would have resulted in a decisive “Remain” victory.

This caprice contradicts Cameron’s claim that “the British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path.” Instead, the aftermath of the referendum has revealed significant numbers of British voters to be dangerously misled and uncertain, swayed by sensationalized anti-immigration rhetoric and dedicated to fulfilling the fleeting wish to puncture the political establishment in any way possible.

As some British public figures have explained, it’s a stupefying display of optimism (or worse, naivety) to believe that the public can fully understand the economic entanglement between the UK and the EU and the consequences of its rupture. This is to say nothing of the indirect ramifications of Brexit, including the possibility of a Scottish exit from the UK, the subsequent inability of Britain to maintain its nuclear weapons, and the broader damage to post-World War II liberal idealism.

The prolific presence of misinformation also considerably affected the debate over the referendum. This is made clear in “Leave’s” infamous ‘bus of misinformation’: the red vehicle that broadcasted criminally misleading promises to spend money on the NHS instead of the EU, appealing to populist sentiments and making assurances the “Leave” campaign had no intention of keeping.

Beyond this, Boris Johnson was very swift to laud the possibility of recreating British trade agreements with the EU, on – and here’s the important part – British terms. However, if the UK does strike a new trade deal with the EU, it will almost certainly be expected to abide by the previously enforced EU regulations that Johnson had so fiercely lambasted. Of course, Brussels now has an even greater incentive to impose these restrictions in any future deal as they hope to deter future “Leave” campaigns.

But why weren’t Cameron’s warnings of economic catastrophe heeded? While his weak approval rating certainly did not help turn favorable ears towards him, Cameron adopted the Sisyphean task of presenting the nuanced and complex economic consequences of leaving the EU in a way that would provoke a passionate, if not fearful response on par with Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

However, Farage’s campaign, which was aided by a broader fear of Islamic extremism, presented British citizens with simpler and more sensationalistic terms upon which to vote. Put simply, the fear of an immigrant taking your job or ISIL bombing your town is one that is far more prevalent than concerns over growth, investment, interest rates, or international cooperation. Neither the nearly universal allegiance of economists against the “Leave” campaign, nor the exhortations of most British Members of Parliament and international leaders were enough to deter the effects of Farage’s fear-capitalizing rhetoric.

So when David Cameron asserts that the British people made a ‘clear’ decision to leave the EU, he asks us to disregard the influence of the misinformation, unpreparedness, and sensationalistic rhetoric that helped provoke the vote’s outcome.

Hours after the vote results were counted, searches in the UK asking ‘what is Brexit’ and ‘what is the EU referendum’ flooded Google. Evidently, like a hangover after an inebriated evening, a large number of British voters were left to question the consequences of their decision and – for a particularly confounded group – what it was that they had helped induce.

Britain did not voice a clear answer to the referendum. Instead it gave a polarized, vastly uninformed, often misguided, and unconfident majority vote. If the Brexit Referendum proves one thing, I think it’s this: politics ought to abandon the fantastical, delusional expectation that the public develop an informed consensus on major political issues. It’s not just unrealistic; it is an overtly unjust betrayal of political responsibility to leave a question of Brexit’s magnitude exclusively to the public.

In his criticisms of popular votes and absolute democracy, Plato conjured up the “Allegory of the Sailors and Captain” in which he characterizes the relationship between sailors (representative of the masses) and their captain (representative of ‘philosopher-kings). Here, the former is convinced that “he ought to be the captain, despite the fact that he’s never learnt how… they all maintain that it isn’t something that can be taught”. Yet, they don’t understand the extreme intricacies of sailing (such as navigation), as a captain would, or even that a need for such knowledge exists. As Socrates puts it, “they completely fail to understand that any genuine sea-captain has to study the yearly cycle, the seasons, the heavens, the stars and winds, and everything relevant to their job, if he’s to be properly equipped to hold a position of authority in a ship.”

While the sailors ought to have a say in what goals their captain sets and what destinations are ultimately desirable—the maintenance of a properly functioning ship requires this—the captain is the only member fit to determine how to get there. By not recognizing this, the sailors risk the destruction of the ship, the failure of their voyage, and the descent into tyranny.


About the Author

Julian Jacobs '19 is a Senior Staff Writer and Interviews Associate at BPR concentrating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He is a former Opinion's Columnist for The Brown Daily Herald and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Brown University Journal of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (JPPE).