Britain's Westminster system of parliamentary government, the oldest in the world, has served as a model for others. But none would hold up its referendum weighing its membership of the European Union (EU) as worthy of emulation. Indeed, the central question posed to voters was one of great importance as it related to issues of "national and social identity, Britain's place in the world and the future of the European project", as a New York Times commentator put it. Alongside bread-and-butter concerns and immigration, the issues deserved to be examined in calm and rational ways. Instead, the debate unleashed bitterness that has torn the nation in half, according to polls, and put world markets on tenterhooks because of the disastrous flow-on effects of a possible Brexit vote.
So fraught is the matter that top British politicians have been at one another's throats. United States President Barack Obama and the International Monetary Fund have issued economic warnings, and "Bremain" tycoons as well as celebrities have weighed in. If it were not for the death of a British MP linked to Brexit by some, one might have characterised in less sombre terms the Britishness of the campaigning - for example, the rambunctious antics on the Thames by rivals in boats. But the toxicity of the debate simply could not be ignored, especially after the duel was described as "Project Fear" versus "Project Hate".
It is a sad fact of democratic societies that the rabble is latent within opposing groups faced with stark choices. Even advanced nations are not spared, as evident in the base instincts roused during America's presidential race by the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Regrettably, Britain's political elite also displayed a capacity to sink to the lowest depths. They resorted to blatant falsehoods to sway and scare voters, with nary a thought for the harm such excesses would cause to the social fabric. After all, it was clear to them there were cleavages along income, educational and geographical lines. Yet, negativity reigned and fears were exploited shamelessly to gain a political edge.
Many of Britain's friends would hope that its people will, at the end of the day, see the folly of a Brexit and opt to remain within the European fold. However intolerable EU bureaucracy is, Britain would be weaker if it tries to succeed in the world on its own. After the "no free lunch" warnings from European leaders, it cannot expect any favours when it does business with Europe later. Striking fresh trade deals with other nations won't be a cinch either because of its much-reduced status. When economists almost unanimously agree that Brexit could prove ruinous, especially over the medium term, British voters should not pretend otherwise that they will somehow be able to muddle through alone.