Baldrick: That’s not true, Lord Nelson’s got a vote!
Blackadder: He’s got a boat, Baldrick!
Is our democracy broken?
The suspicion that there is something wrong with British politics long predates the recent Brexit referendum result. The result itself has been characterised in some quarters as two fingers from the masses to the political elite, who have long, by turns, lectured them, patronised them and ignored them. In response, turnouts at British elections have been low in recent years, struggling to get much above 60% since Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, and this has allowed a narrative to develop that there is no belief that politicians will do anything to answer the concerns of the populace.
This is, however, fanciful. 17 million voted for Brexit and 16 million voted against it. This is scarcely an almighty raspberry-blowing, but a meek begging to differ. The country, it is claimed in a similar version of events, is divided between sophisticated urban and political elites, young and intelligent, and ageing provincial simpletons, narrow-minded and ignorant of both the realities and the subtleties of living in a modern globalised world, and yearning for an unobtainable 1950’s Pathe-News Britain which probably never existed anyway.
This, also, is a simplistic gloss. Those of us who live and work among those supposedly sophisticated urban professionals know how impossible it was, in the day or two after the Brexit result, when some were claiming they were too upset to work, a bit like schoolgirls going home when Take That split, to say a word of consolation that didn’t involve the supposition that the idiots had somehow won, and that any Brexit supporter must be a racist and a bigot.
One canard doing the rounds in those same days was a gloating from the Brexit camp, at the absurd suggestion that there should be a second referendum: ‘that’s democracy – deal with it.’ The question of whether the referendum result is at all democracy is in fact, wide-open.
For democracy, to be sure, is not simply the dull-witted bludgeoning into submission of the minority by the (simple) majority. It is not purely the idea that in any vote the majority wins. Modern theorists require other elements such as the rule of law, the protection of human rights (perhaps under threat if Theresa May becomes PM?) and, most importantly, the active participation of the citizen in politics and civic life. In particular, our own brand of democracy, seen as an example of the utmost primacy throughout the free world, and even aped by those states which are far from free, is a representative democracy. Voters do not wield power by themselves, except in so far as to choose just one member of a parliament. Those members, in their turn, vote on legislative matters of state, not blindly according to the opinions of their constituents, nor wholly according to their own tastes and opinions, but with an awareness that it is their duty – rather like a trustee – to do what is in the interests of their constituents, whether they voted for them or not. While it would be wonderful to believe that this sense of duty was enough on its own to ensure that MPs behave like that, the fact is that mainly they do so in order to retain their seat, and do not bring the opprobrium of the voter down upon their heads.
This notion of the MP as steward, as a person bearing a heavy responsibility to make good choices, is the very reason why plebiscite, by contrast, is such a disaster. If MPs make a bad decision at the division bell, their voters know, and they are held to account. They cannot say ‘I didn’t realise my vote would count’. They cannot say ‘I voted to keep the Syrians out’. They cannot say ‘I don’t really understand the EU.’ The papers on June 24th were full of members of the ‘demos’ saying things exactly that, and able to shrug it off. They are told that they have a civic duty to take part in elections, and they oblige, not aware of any concomitant civic duty to be properly informed, to make rational decisions, or to understand the strong law of large numbers. They can vote ignorantly, maliciously and stupidly, and laugh about it afterwards with no more consequence than if they had named a Lifeboat Boaty McBoatface. Well, no worse consequence than they may, by their consonance with other irrational voters, have imposed upon the rest of the country.
This is why plebiscite rightly has a minimal role in our democracy. It is why, perhaps, the government chose to make this an advisory referendum. Despite the repeated use of sentences like ‘The British people have chosen to leave the EU,’ and its kin, the British people does not have that power. The referendum is no more than a poll of what 30 million members of the electorate thought on 23rd June 2016. The decision actually to take us out of Europe will require an Act of Parliament to be constitutional, and for it to be passed, a majority of the Commons will have to vote for it. Given that a very large majority of the Commons were opposed to leaving the EU, it is a puzzle to know what will happen. Those in constituencies where a large majority voted to leave, like Boston, Lincolnshire, may well feel that their seats are safest if they give effect to the will of their constituents. But many MPs in more marginal seats who feel strongly that it is best for the country to remain in the EU, may risk their voters’ wrath in the next election, or even feel that it is an issue worth being unseated for.
What I hope will not happen is that the PM, whoever that may be, whips his party to vote for Brexit regardless of their personal convictions. There are doubtless times when it is necessary to impose strong sanctions upon those who do not toe the Party line, but given that this is an issue which has split the Tory party, it would be very hard to make a case that there even exists a line to be toed.
So what? Is possible to believe that Brexit may not, after all, happen? Despite 52% of the country being in favour of leaving, could we, after all, Remain, that political elite we met at the beginning cocking a schnook back at the lumpen proletariat and their wild uninformed voting?
I suspect not. Already, thanks to the media and its famous figures behaving as if that Boaty McBoatface has sailed, people are beginning to say English things like ‘I suppose we’d better make the best of a bad job’ and ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘how were we supposed to beat a team like Iceland?’ Now it has been announced to the world’s stockmarkets that we’re leaving, and they’re just starting to rally again and think that the UK might not be worthless after all, might it be a mistake to tell them all that we’ve changed our mind?
I just think it might.
3 thoughts on “Broken”
There’s a naivety that lurks in your piece – no offense. Elected officials, by and large, are elites. Making the argument that they should simply disregard the result of a plebiscite on a highly charged issue because they’re better placed to make a more ‘informed’ decision implies that they wouldn’t ever make a decision that serves their elite interests over their constituency – and in a way that rationalized it to the public. So I don’t buy this position you’ve advanced about how self-serving humans, in general, should be trusted to make selfless decisions that affect the many.
Thank you for reading, and for commenting, and also for the book recommendation.
I suspect you may be right about the general naivety, but I’m not sure I accept your third sentence. To the extent that the ‘elite interests’ – whatever they may be: retention of power, the status quo? – are concealed from the public by their rationalisation, it may not matter. If decisions are seen to be rational and at worst of only enlightened self-interest (someone who leads a group of people to safety on a sinking ship is also saving their own skins) then it is irrelevant whether there is some concealed self-interest. If decisions are seen to be flagrantly self-serving, then the representative will (presumably) be punished at the next election – although I do accept that this may not be the case: persistent loyalty of the electorate or the lack of a suitable alternative, for example.
But sure, it would be wrong to presume that it is a flawless system, and all politicians should be mistrusted. My point is only that they shouldn’t perhaps be mistrusted as much as the public at large, who would vote for public hanging, drawing and quartering like a shot, and then vote against it the following week.