As inflammatory as many people may take this, the day Article 50 is triggered will be the say that democracy was subverted in the ‘Brexit’ discourse. It will have been triggered on the back of an awfully constructed opinion poll, violations of the principles of democracy and contrary to how British democracy has functioned for quite some time.
- A vote should be backed up by an Act of Parliament which defines what the ‘Leave’ vote actually means.
- Without that Act, the ‘Leave’ side is actually a group of disagreeing and incompatible views
- Any ‘realised’ Brexit represents only a minority of the ‘Leave’ side.
- The open debate principle of our democracy is being stifled by dogmatic dependence on the hard-to-decypher vote and obfuscation.
- This is writing a blank cheque for a narrow fanatically free market fringe view
- The ‘well informed’ principle of our democracy was undermined by the dishonest campaign run on both sides of the lead-up campaigns.
- Representative democracy should supercede the vote.
- An Act of Parliament would have integrated the vote into our representative democracy, but the opportunity is now missed.
I have no interest, here, in explaining all the risks associated with Brexit. There, arguably, is a lot of opportunity as well. Some of those benefits may not reach me before I start considering my own retirement, but it’s possible. But that is not the point of the discussion I want to start here.
Contrary to popular belief, the UK never had a Referendum on its membership of the EU. What it had was an extensive opinion poll, commissioned by the Government. A referendum has to be backed up by an Act of Parliament. Such an Act would outline the conditions that have to be met for the Referendum to instigate change, and what that change should be (or, at least, the principles one is aiming at). This defines the meaning of the ‘Change’ vote, in this case, unpicking the ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ slogan to actually inform the public. Even the UK Parlaiment’s Thresholds in Referendums article (PDF here) talks of requiring a 60% turnout and two-thirds majority for a vote for change; something the EU opinion poll didn’t meet.
(I concede to being a little facetious in calling a Referendum not backed up by an Act of Parliament an ‘opinion poll’, it is actually a ‘nonbinding referendum’. But that is a distinction without a difference.)
The absence of an Act of Parliament is not just some technicality. There are real implications of not having an Act of Parliament, namely that no one could ever be sure what the ‘Leave’ vote meant. To be clear, there are a spectrum of positions that relate to the vote on the UK’s membership of the EU: on the ‘Remain’ side, there is the extreme end of people who believe the EU is a near-infallible force for good and should be given yet further power, those who believe the EU is basically okay and nothing is really worth changing, and the ‘Remain and Reform’ people who believe the EU basically good but is easier to improve from within (officially the stance of Jeremy Corbyn during campaigns); then, on the ‘Leave’ side there is simply a mess of positions relating to immigration, membership of the ‘single market’, further trade deals, EU-lite arrangements like the Schengen Area — and more than one position on each of these. And yet, all of these positions had to be summed up in one binary question: Remain or Leave?
It could be argued that the vote, for this very reason, would be unconstitutional. I couldn’t put my chips down on how such a court case would conclude, as the UK has an unratified constitution which is a process of precedents set through modern history and in many cases is contradictory. But it is certainly undemocratic for this simple reason: as soon as one actually picks a ‘type’ of Brexit, putting details on the bone, one divides the Leavers into a minority. Because Brexit wasn’t — and isn’t — defined, any Brexit runs the real risk of representing the wishes of a vanishingly small minority of the people.
This consequence of not defining the terms of the debate is that a ‘Brexit’ vote has written a blank cheque for the rich neoliberals. One of my worries before the vote was that the EU worked to regulate for protections, and in The Great Brexit Swindle, TJ Coles underlines that very fear: a lot of the Leave campaign was funded by free market fanatics for that very reason. And that blank cheque is a symptom of yet another way democracy is being subverted: discussion and debate is being stifled.
Since the vote, every discussion about Brexit has been prefaced and concluded with this slightly menacing sentiment: one must remember the will of the people expressed on 23rd June 2016. Essentially meaning ‘debate all you want, but change nothing’, making the debate nothing more than the ceremonial waste of time that means democracy has been undermined. We don’t know what the vote actually means, nor do we know the will of the people. We don’t know if we should still control immigration if we can only get that deal through leaving the single market. The vote simply didn’t have the scope to interrogate that question, nor many others like it. Despite this, Theresa May even turned up to the House of Lords to declare this menacing reminder and to attempt to intimidate the House of Lords into not defying the Dear Leader.
For those who are unsure, there’s a point here to make about British democracy: after an Act or Bill is composed and then voted on by the elected representatives in Parliament, the unelected Lords then debate and amend the document, agree it, then give it back to Parliament to vote on. Once both houses agree it, then the Queen signs off on it. It’s a error correction process that really shouldn’t be corrupted by intimidation. It’s not perfect, but it’s not better if it’s intentionally corrupted.
The fact is, all debates have seen stifled by the bulldozing inertia of claiming that ‘any-Brexit’ is the Brexit people voted for, and Labour’s three-line whip. (Democracy is not just being subverted by the Conservatives here.)
Here, we really should now talk about how British democracy works. The citizens elect a representative; someone they trust to represent their local interests and to have the expertise to navigate in that direction. The representative then argues your case in Parliament and votes accordingly. Their voting record should be available, and they are contactable to be held accountable. The point is, you trust them to make the rational steps towards your interests.
You do not make the steps. This is important. Politics has become very complicated and your are not expected to be able to navigate the terrain yourself. The politicians navigate, you pick the destination. Referendums are not this process. They are not how British democracy works; they are not how representative democracy works. They are a one-off special event that should be very carefully justified. But they are not our democracy. To integrate Referendums into our representative democracy, we have to support the Referendum with a preceding Act of Parliament. Promoting a vote on a single issue over a representative democracy, that’s the subversion of democracy. But politicians with special interests dogmatically rely on the results of the vote to support their own fringe interests.
Lastly, you were lied to. Another important value of democracy is being well-informed, and yet both campaigns were guilty of misinformation. It is the case that the Leave campaign spread more misinformation than the Remain campaign, and I’m not trying to make this a wash where all blemishes are equal; one side was worse than the other. But being well-informed was difficult. Believing lies was made very easy, because people who should be respectable were spreading the lies. That seems like commonplace now, but it shouldn’t have been happening; it is a threat to democracy. EU membership does not cost £350 million per week, EU regulations are not that restrictive. Voting on these issues with the information you were handed corrupts democratic processes.
The way the campaigns, vote and post-vote debate have been implemented — the lies, the poor organisation, the lack of detail and explanation and the bullying — are all reasons that triggering Article 50 is, at best, a bastardised version of democracy. More realistically, it’s a corruption of democracy.