Nothing word is more stretched to people’s convenience that “democracy”. Everybody claims to be democratic, and yet few are interested in understanding what people actually want and then implementing it. They just want to convince themselves that their own points of view are “democratic”. But democracy matters all the same – and it is at the heart of Britain’s Brexit crisis.
Liberals are as bad as anybody in trying to bend the idea of democracy to suit them. After all genuine liberals are only a minority of the population at large, and the idea of “liberal democracy” contains a tension at its heart. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin was quite right when he said that marchers last weekend in favour of a further “people’s vote” on Brexit (of whom I was one) weren’t really interested in democracy, but in finding a way for Britain to stay in the EU.
But Mr Jenkin and his ilk are no better. They often claim that people and parliament are pulling in opposite directions. Parliament has a Remain majority, they say, but there is a Leave majority in the country at large. The first part of that statement is probably true, though most MPs seem to want to implement the 2016 referendum result in one way or another. The second statement is flat untrue, according to polling evidence, as demographic shifts and scepticism over Brexit mount. More people would prefer the UK to stay in than leave (though whether there is a majority for either view is doubtful – a lot of people just want it settled one way or another so that the political class can move on to other business). These Brexiteers stretch things even further when they claim that the majority of the British public support their particular version of Brexit, which means departure from both a customs union and the Single Market. For all that humbug, their claim rests on a series of ideas about democracy that have widespread support.
The first idea is that referendum results trump all other forms of democratic decision making. Thus the 2016 referendum result is an instruction to parliament that it must honour, or else there is a betrayal of democracy. This is widely accepted: most Remainers think that the 2016 result can only be superseded by a further referendum result. But there are some curiosities. Turnout in the 2016 referendum was high by British standards, but the result was close, so that the winning side got well under 40% of the registered electorate. Unlike the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, 16- and 17- year olds were excluded; it is thought that these would mostly have voted Remain. So were EU residents registered for local and European elections (English people resident in Scotland were not excluded the independence referendum). But legally the result was not actually binding – it was advisory. That means that any challenges to its legality, particularly on the conduct the Leave campaign, would actually be pointless. For all that most people think the referendum result is valid and binding – and what most people think, in a democracy, matters a lot.
A second principle is that the manifestos on which political parties stand in a general election are binding on those MPs. The manifesto is the instrument by which the people delegate responsibility for governing to their MPs. This idea is popular with party managers and activists of all political parties. It suggests that if they can win a parliamentary majority for their party, then they have a democratic mandate to implement the entire manifesto, regardless of whether circumstances or opinions change. The seems to be the main justification that the Prime Minister Theresa May uses for her “scorched earth” policy of ensuring that any alternative to the deal she negotiated with the EU gets no oxygen in parliament. Indeed Mrs May seems to think that the manifesto gives her government absolute executive authority to implement it until a no-confidence vote stops it. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would probably think the same way if he were Prime Minister. The manifesto argument does have some power. If MPs and parties could do what they liked regardless of what they said at election time, they would be hard to hold to account. And a manifesto is an attempt to promote a coherent programme rather than focus on a single issue. Still most politicians do not go about winning votes based on their manifestos, and few voters other than party activists read them. Instead they say that they are the best candidate to stop the one you most dislike, or that they would be an excellent representative for local issues that never make it to the party manifesto. If a Labour candidate came to my door, and I said that, sorry, I preferred the Lib Dem or Green manifestos, she would tell me not to waste may vote on them because they would never get in here: vote Labour and I can stop the Conservatives winning and implementing a hard Brexit. If I succumbed to this argument, Labour activists would say that I was supporting widespread nationalisation and abolishing student tuition fees. Tories would say that I had voted to implement Brexit. And, of course, it is very rare for the winner of a British general election to actually win an overall majority of votes cast, still less a majority of the electorate as a whole.
A third idea is that you can’t keep going back to people with the same proposition. If it fails at a referendum or parliamentary vote, then you must move on. It is one of the bigger complaints of Brexiteers that for countries where EU treaty changes are put to national referendums and fail, they are put back to them again, substantially unchanged. There are good reasons for this within the EU, but it does make the point that membership of the union restricts the options for any national electorate, and that they have to rely on the their elected representatives to negotiate on their behalf. This idea certainly has something going for it. It stops a bullying executive (or political class) trying to gets its way regardless. And it means that people and MPs are fully accountable for how they vote – rather than just shrugging and saying that they can always change their vote later. The irony of Mrs May repeatedly coming back to Parliament with the same deal, while saying that a further referendum would be undemocratic is lost on few. Still circumstances do move on and minds can change.
What is being lost in all this is the idea of representative democracy, which suggests we elect MPs to consider the issues of the day on our behalf based on the circumstances of the time. We want them to use their own judgement on our behalf, rather than mandating them to adopt particular positions. That idea clearly has its weaknesses, but it is the founding principle of Britain’s democratic institutions. It is the reason that we have single member constituencies, where we vote for people first and parties second. If we believed that parties and manifestos were more important, then a proportional voting system would be more appropriate – which is indeed used in Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections.
Democracy and its institutions are a messy compromise. There is no right answer, and the best answer will only be the best answer for quite a short period of time. The test is whether the public at large think the whole process is fair, and recognise the legitimacy of the laws that result. By and large British democracy has passed this test, for all the complaints of liberals like myself. But Brexit is now stretching that. Remain voters were shocked at the strength and depth of feeling that emerged from those that voted Leave in 2016. That created a moment for democratic compromise. But the reason why the anti-Brexit protest marches have been drawing increasing support, and the petition to revoke article 50 has gone viral, is that a very large part of the electorate now feels trampled on and ignored in its turn. That is why I have joined them. We have gone through all the stages of grief for the Brexit result, emerged from depression, and instead of reconciliation we are getting angry again. We are told that Britain’s membership of the EU is plot by an unaccountable liberal elite, but that is not how it feels to us and our social circles. It feels more like a group of unscrupulous chancers capitalising on the (legitimate) resentments of the public to push through changes that will make our lives worse.
Who knows how this will work out? Should, against the odds, the Remainers actually succeed in stopping Brexit there will be huge scars on Britain’s body politic – but a least their political leaders seem to recognise that we can’t go back to where we were before. But if Brexit goes through, there will be deep scars too, especially Brexit-supporting leaders seem to care little about it. The people being trampled on may not be a majority, but they are, by and large, the people that keep the country and the economy running smoothly, and participate in public institutions, including voting. How their anger will be channelled is the great unknown that will overhang British politics.
Following the referendum, the government should have gone for a compromise Brexit, involving membership of the EEA (Norway-plus), and then let British democratic institutions take over from that, either back into full membership, or full exit. Mrs May’s plan was a reasonable interpretation of what Leavers voted for, but failed to reach out to Remainers while they were still on the ropes. We will pay a bitter price now whatever happens.