In defence of democracy

In a civilised, democratic society, people’s votes must have real meaning.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle

Topics Brexit Politics UK

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.

Header picture by: Getty.

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Mark Newstead

12th September 2019 at 2:39 am

Great article and well thought out.
I think the voters knew what they were voting for in the broad sense of political and economic freedom. The ability to make our own laws and create own trade deals and reducing our membership fee to the EU.
I don’t think you can negate the vote easily, without creating a huge problem. Economic hardship doesn’t really come into it now, its about self determination and the British peoples right to control their own destiny, not give control to the dreaded EU. Project fear is losing its potency.
Remain might win the battle, but they will definitely lose the war and the UK will be the poorer for it, both politically in losing voter confidence and economically in major demonstration and ill will. Also the rise of the right and the destruction of two party system.
The Brexit party will grow from strength to strength thru popular unrest and the feeling of disenfranchisement by the people.
Parliament need to understand this and find ways to mitigate such risks. But I fear they are obsessed about winning the battle and forgetting about the war.

A Game

11th September 2019 at 9:12 pm

“…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.
It is the essential corruptibility of humankind that makes the separation of powers so key to any functioning democracy. ”
This is the true guts of, well, everything.
Marx had such insight and creativity in theorising a system to empower the majority, to acknowledge that the worker, as a resource, was worth more than a pittance. The stark division between rich and poor, the success of the middle classes, made all of his ideas humane, just.
The thing that he overlooked, the massive gap in all of it, was human nature.
The first person has all the goodness, they are the benevolent dictator. But human nature rears its head, and there’s someone else, always, who wants the top job. And then the alliances and power blocs – the cronyism – begins.
No country having the ability to guarantee a benevolent dictator means you just can’t ever have a system that supports a dictator. (Monarchy follows the same lines, obviously. The kind monarch dies, replaced by their reprobate offspring.)
And as you describe so well, its then the bump and grind of always refining democracy.

I hope a lot of socialists are like me. That the ideal of a system relying on the goodness of those who preside over it has been proven a failure. The economic principles of socialism can live on, be implemented, but it always must be within a system of checks and balances – democracy. Get it right, find an equitable approach that benefits the entirety of society, then you never have to lose an election. Start to drift, start to lean to an extreme (which is usually human nature rearing its head again) – you lose an election. And that then leads to the loser having to be willing to concede.

Obviously the youth of today need a little less climate change fright and a little more history. (Which accidentally brings up a great example of why the young are having this flirtation with a system of autocracy. They are frustrated that the masses aren’t listening to Greta, so the masses have to be nullified. Centralised power would halt global warming in its tracks. Problem solved. Righto. (I think they think they get to keep their phones in this vision they have, or THEY do, just no one else does.)
Everyone else, alas, but them, then knows the great void that follows on after that. And they have to know these dangers run across all cultures, all ethnicities.)
Really nice article. I like its gentle tone of healing compromise.

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