In defence of democracy
In a civilised, democratic society, people’s votes must have real meaning.
Democracy is an imperfect system for an imperfect society. I tend to agree with EM Forster’s view that ‘it is less hateful than other contemporary forms of government, and to that extent it deserves our support’. The alternative, after all, must be a kind of tyranny, and while a benevolent dictatorship is theoretically possible, history teaches us that to advance such a solution is rarely a risk worth taking.
With its archaic ‘first past the post’ method of selecting MPs, our democracy is as flawed as any other in the Western world. In the 2015 General Election, for instance, UKIP secured 3.9million votes but won only one seat in the Commons. By contrast, the 1.5million votes for the SNP resulted in 56 seats. Under proportional representation, UKIP would have ended up with 83 MPs. If, like me, you are not a UKIP supporter, the temptation is to justify such an undemocratic system on the grounds that it ensured the failure of our opponents. It’s a temptation that many are unable to resist.
When it comes to democracy it is essential that we strive for consistent principles, even when we do not take pleasure in the outcome. Roger Scruton calls this a ‘pre-political loyalty’ by which we resolve the common problem of living under a government for which most of the electorate didn’t vote. We respect our fellow citizens even when they do not vote our way, because ‘the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours”’. The electorate is bound together, in other words, by the first-person plural. Hence the famous preamble to the US constitution: ‘We the people…’
A common slogan to be seen on placards at anti-Trump protests is ‘Not My President’, or ‘Not My PM’ in the case of those closer to home. And while I am no fan of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, I find that the sentiment grows more sinister the more one considers its implications. It means that we no longer accept the democratic contract and, more worryingly, that we yearn for something else. As I have already pointed out, the alternative is there for all to see in the annals of history.
Recent events in parliament have made it more apparent than ever that something needs to be done to restore some semblance of democracy to our nation. A few months after the EU referendum I was having a conversation with a Labour backbencher and former member of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet who, although a fierce opponent of Brexit, considered the idea that parliament might overturn the result to be an impossibility. As far as she was concerned, no MP would seriously countenance such a grossly undemocratic course of action. But in the intervening three years there has been a general change of outlook, one fostered by the unending repetition of lies which has enabled MPs to disregard the referendum result with a clear conscience.
It is known as the ‘illusory truth effect’. We’ve been assured that two plus two equals five for so long now that the rules of arithmetic no longer seem to apply. We are told that those who voted for Brexit had no idea what they were voting for, even though there were months of debate on the subject and the population had never been more politically energised. We are told that the electorate didn’t understand that leaving the EU would involve leaving the Single Market, even though the ramifications of leaving the Single Market were a continual feature of the numerous televised debates. We are told that the referendum was advisory, even though no leading campaigner on either side of the argument ever remotely suggested such a thing before the result. We are told that the Leave vote was based on widespread xenophobia, even though studies confirm that the UK is one of the least xenophobic countries in the world. We are told that Brexit supporters are slaves to nostalgia who yearn for a colonial past, even though nobody seems to have actually met any of these supposedly ubiquitous colonialists. And now, of course, we are told on a daily basis that thwarting this seismic democratic mandate would somehow be in the best interests of democracy, and that the attempt to enact the result of a national referendum is a ‘coup’. It’s the kind of doublethink that would put Trump to shame.
Of course none of the above arguments stands up to any kind of serious scrutiny, and yet many intelligent commentators feel no shame in repeating them. This tells us a great deal about human nature, not least that we are prone to convincing ourselves of palpable untruths if it might save us from having to face unpleasant realities. We may guard against this as best we can, but anyone who claims to be immune is simply demonstrating their susceptibility in the very act of denial.
It is the essential corruptibility of humankind that makes the separation of powers so key to any functioning democracy. Ours is an unwritten constitution, which means that we rely on the sound judgement of our representatives, and trust them to resist the temptation to game the system. But in the past two months we have seen MPs on both sides of the House doing just that. Boris Johnson has prorogued parliament in an effort to constrain the powers of the legislature. Opposition MPs have abused Standing Order No 24, a procedure by which emergency debates can be held, in order to make leaving the EU without a deal illegal. The speaker, John Bercow, who has long given up on the pretence of impartiality, has allowed them to do so in spite of accepted protocol. This is all technically permissible, but it is nonetheless the kind of constitutional sleight of hand that fatally undermines faith in parliament.
Similarly, there is no requirement for MPs who defect from one party to another to trigger a by-election, even though there is no doubt a moral responsibility to do so. Former Labour MP Angela Smith has now joined the Liberal Democrats via Change UK, in spite of the fact that in her constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge the Lib Dems won a mere 4.1 per cent of the vote. In Phillip Lee’s Bracknell constituency, the Lib Dems won just 7.5 per cent, so his defection from the Tories (whose share was 58.8 per cent) is no trivial matter. ‘We don’t need by-elections’, Lee said in a recent interview. ‘We don’t actually need General Elections at the moment.’ It’s a common sentiment from a parliament that is now clearly afraid of the judgement of the public.
The feeling is mutual; recent polling reveals that only one in five British voters say they ‘tend to trust’ the House of Commons. As Fraser Nelson points out in the Telegraph, claims that Boris Johnson is ‘hard right’ or ‘extreme’ for attempting to implement the referendum result – particularly when his policies are so clearly moving the Tories to the centre ground – simply will not pass muster with an electorate that voted in good faith to leave the EU. Nor will claims that there is ‘no mandate for a No Deal Brexit’ ever be persuasive. The referendum was a binary decision based on leaving or staying. Any subsequent referendum on the deal would only be legitimate were it to offer leaving the EU on WTO terms or a deal that had been agreed by parliament. To offer the option to remain in the EU all over again would be to nullify the referendum that has already been held. We can only claim to be living in a democracy if our votes have meaning, and the majority of the population understands this even if our parliamentarians do not. Many of those who currently occupy the seats of Westminster are screaming to themselves in a vacuum.
Brexit is no longer about Brexit. It is about restoring the electorate’s faith in representative democracy. For MPs to be finding loopholes and reinterpreting the constitution for partisan ends is a breach of trust that the public is clearly no longer willing to tolerate. The way in which Remain and Leave voters might find common ground is through the need to maintain our pre-political loyalty to each other, to remember that parliamentary democracy is based ‘not upon the sovereignty of Parliament, but upon the sovereignty of the People’ (in the words of Tony Benn).
A political class that has lost sight of its duty to the citizens it serves is a danger to Remainers and Leavers alike. If there is a silver lining to the collective failure of MPs to enact the outcome of the referendum, it is that it has exposed the rot at the heart of the legislature. Once we have left the EU, it is incumbent on all of us who care about democracy to turn our attention to how we might best reform this ailing parliamentary system.
Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.
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