We like to think we know a bit about democracy in the UK. After all we do plenty of voting.
We expect to have our say in the hullabaloo of a general election every five years or so, in between times letting our elected representatives get on with all that tiresome governing – whilst reserving the right to moan about what a rotten job they’re making of it, and looking forward to giving them a kicking next time round.
And then of course there are local elections and, whisper it, elections for MEPS…
But the EU referendum has rather cut across these familiar arrangements, and asked some questions about just what democracy is.
Decision-making by referendum has never been quite “the done thing” for us, notwithstanding a developing keenness for plebiscites in more northern parts of these islands.
Even before the result in favour of Brexit there were those who argued we shouldn’t be having an EU referendum at all; that to do so wasn’t consistent with British representative democracy.
Professor Richard Dawkins, no less, said that the (politically) ignorant public were not qualified to decide matters of such importance which should be left to professional politicians. Yes, but how should the ignorant public decide who to elect as their professional politicians. Perhaps we should let MPs choose themselves…
After the result, there were inevitably plenty more very upset people who said we should never have had a referendum, that this had just been a device to save the Conservative party from UKIP, and that Parliament should have decided what to do about Europe.
The problem is that Parliament did decide, and it decided to ask us to decide! And to be fair, this was only after we’d given a strong hint that this was what we wanted!
Because in 2015, both the Tories and UKIP stood on manifestos promising a referendum, and between them received almost half of all the votes. Having secured a majority in Parliament, the Conservatives promptly introduced the EU Referendum Bill, which the House of Commons supported by 544 to 53, with only the SNP voting against.
And thus, our professional politicians decided to implement a manifesto commitment that more than half of MPs stood on, and almost half of voters supported. You just can’t trust some people…
And so we were asked to vote. And we did. And about half the population became very upset.
Those distressed by the referendum result have proposed various options to avoid Brexit, despite the apparently incontestable fact that Brexit was the democratically preferred option for most voters! In doing so, they have sought to avoid the damning charge of being anti-democratic by arguing that their suggestions will improve the democratic quality of the outcome.
One suggestion is that we should have more democracy. We need to “double-down” on democracy, the argument goes. Who could argue with that? We’ve had one referendum: if that’s what democracy is then let’s have another one; twice as much democracy at a stroke!
Better still, we can upgrade the second referendum to make it even more democratic. More people voting for something is obviously better, so to be sure we have come to the right decision let’s say the result is only valid if turnout is more than 75%, and if the winning side gets more than, say, 60% of the votes. That would be much more democratic.
Presumably in this scenario we keep on having referendums until we get fed up…
Another suggestion is not more democracy, but better democracy; traditional, honest-to-God, British, meat-and-two-veg representative democracy. None of your EU referendum plebiscite rubbish!
The pitch here is that most MPs aren’t in favour of leaving the EU anyway. And, they’re the professional politicians, so they know best. They should do us all a favour and vote against the implementation of Brexit, because the referendum was only advisory. And this is far more important than any ordinary decision. After all, everyone knows Brexit is a Bad Idea, and only 37% of the total electorate voted to Leave, and most of them were xenophobic old people who don’t understand Europe…
I doubt either the more or better democracy options will be adopted, requiring as they do collective action by MPs akin to a rafter of Meleagris gallopavo rushing to a Yuletide kitchen!
MPs will struggle to disassociate themselves from a referendum they set up and campaigned in, and in which 33 million people voted and delivered a clear outcome. Even our oft-despised representatives may calculate that residual respect for the political class will not survive their ignoring the result, or asking the population to “try again”.
There’s also the inconvenient truth that people who voted for Brexit also vote for MPs. It’s estimated that 421 English and Welsh constituencies probably voted to Leave. So, any of these MPs voting to ignore the outcome of the referendum would presumably either be planning to retire in 2020 anyway, or very confident they could win over their electorate before then.
Parliament may still be sovereign, but it seems to have painted itself into a democratic corner.
But whilst Parliament as a whole may lack the courage, conviction or recklessness to ignore a clear mandate resulting from a popular vote, the Parliamentary Labour Party is getting its overalls on, handing out red paint, brushes and rollers, and preparing for some serious redecoration.
170 Labour MPs are urging their leader Jeremy Corbyn to stand down, less than a year after he was directly elected by 250,000 party members.
Who should prevail: the elected professional politicians representing their Labour-voting constituents, or the (ignorant?) party members who voted overwhelmingly for Mr Corbyn?
It seems grimly inevitable that the answer will involve yet more voting, and even more unhappy people.