Democracy and the ‘will of the people’

daily_mail_will_of_the_peopleOne of the more disturbing features of the debates surrounding Brexit is the routine way in which many Brexiteers invoke a notion of democracy based on the ‘will of the people’. According to this view, those who are trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit are being anti-democratic, because they are going against the supposed popular will (this popular will amounting to 17 million people out of a UK population of 65 million; or, a 52% vote for Leave on a 74% turnout). Unfortunately, this increasingly common argument (it is encountered frequently in the Brexit-supporting tabloid press) is itself dangerously close to being anti-democratic, since it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is.

Democracy is government by popular consent. It is a form of government in which political authority flows from the people (rather than, say, from God, as in medieval political systems). Consent is a key term: where there is consent, a government is legitimate; where there is not consent, a government is illegitimate and can legitimately be replaced. A democracy ensures consent through such things as regular free and fair elections, the opportunity to remove and replace bad governments and to amend or overturn bad policies, a free press and a large public sphere in which politics can be discussed and debated by everyone. All these things are carefully defended in a democracy. Where they are denied—for example, if the press is not free, or there is no opportunity to overturn bad policies—the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic.

The definition of ‘the people’ has always been fluid, but at the heart of democracy is the idea that the ‘people’ should be defined as widely as possible. A society in which only the aristocracy has a say in politics is not democratic; nor is one in which, for example, women or Jews are denied a vote. Since ancient Athenian democracy restricted voting to adult males, excluding all women, slaves and non-Athenians, it would not qualify as a democracy in the modern sense.

Democracy has nothing to do with the so-called ‘will of the people’. Not only is this concept impossible to define with any precision (making it largely nonsensical), but it has routinely been invoked by anti-democratic totalitarian regimes (e.g. the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany) to justify their politics. It implies that anyone who disagrees with the supposed ‘will’ can no longer be considered one of the ‘people’; such an individual comes to be regarded as a traitor to the people. Historically, one of the consequences of this notion of the ‘will of the people’ has been the denial of rights to supposed ‘un-persons’ and the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’, imprisonment and execution.

In any large, complex society there are numerous different interests and values which defeat all attempts to identify a single ‘will of the people’. Democracy involves recognizing these different interests and values through a form of government that, despite the differences running through society, is agreed to by everyone. Democracy is not, therefore, about simple majority rule; it is about governing in a way that commands the consent of everyone. A democracy which, for example, ignores the interests and values of minority groups or beliefs risks no longer being a democracy and becoming instead a tyranny.

For those interested in political thought: look to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, not to Rousseau.

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Resist Brexit!

anti-brexit-rallyBrexit can and should be resisted, and it can and should be stopped. Those of us who voted Remain in the EU referendum and who regard Brexit as potentially (for it hasn’t actually happened yet) the most disastrous event in modern British history have every reason to keep fighting and grounds for cautious optimism about success. As Martin Kettle has written in The Guardian, this is a long game: the complex process of leaving the EU has not even begun, and assuming that Article 50 is triggered in March next year it will likely be two years, possibly longer, before any formal agreement to leave has been reached. For the Remainers, there is time to mount a determined fightback; for the Brexiters, who have so far revealed themselves to be lacking any sort of coherent plan, who are divided among those who want variations of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, who are increasingly having to explain why they no longer stand by many of the claims and promises made during the referendum campaign, and who are facing growing evidence of the economic, cultural and social disarray that Brexit will cause, the problems will only accumulate.

Many Brexiters have argued that Remainers (or Remoaners as they are fond of dubbing us) should shut up since the ‘will’ of the British public is for Brexit; some, notably the Daily Mail and Daily Express, have gone so far as to accuse those opposing Brexit of being unpatriotic subverters of democracy, in effect suggesting that we are traitors. As I noted shortly after the referendum result, 17 million people voted for Brexit out of a population of 65 million; that amounts to 26% of the population as a whole, and about 38% of the electorate—hardly numbers that reflect a clear and emphatic ‘will of the people’. Even the headline (and most important) figure of 52% does not amount to such a general ‘will’; it simply reveals that a narrow majority of those who could be bothered to vote on 23 June favoured leaving the EU in one form or another. Unless the 48% who voted Remain (and the 74% of the population who, for one reason or another, have not expressed any desire to leave the EU) are no longer to be considered as part of the ‘British public’, any claims that the Brexiters speak on behalf of the ‘will of the people’ should be rejected as arrogant and unjustified. Put simply, they speak for the 17 million who voted for Brexit, no more, no less.

The 17 million do, of course, represent a majority of the vote. But the UK is a democracy, and as such the right of the 48% to continue opposing Brexit, through argument and debate, through democratic and legal means, should be respected. A democracy does not work on the basis that all those who lose a vote are immediately expected to abandon their position and adopt the position of the winning side—if it did, then it would cease to be a democracy and become instead a tyranny of the majority. It may be that the Remainers will not ultimately succeed in resisting Brexit, but that in no way means they do not have the right to resist it democratically. Those Brexiters who think that right should be denied the Remainers are adopting a dangerously anti-democratic stance (in keeping with their ‘enemies of the people’ attack on the judges who ruled that parliament must be consulted about triggering Article 50). Fundamental to democracy is inclusive debate, in which the views of all sides are heard; anyone, whether Brexiter or Remainer, who supports democracy should welcome an ongoing and vigorous debate about Brexit, the right of all sides to make their strongest cases, and the right of the 48%—just as much as that of the 52%—to be represented in those debates.

Equally to be rejected is the Brexiters claim that Remainers are ‘unpatriotic’. Those of us who continue to argue for Remain do so on the basis that Brexit will be enormously damaging to the UK. Remainers are determined that Britain avoids this damage; we believe that for Britain to flourish and prosper, it needs to be an open, inclusive, tolerant country within a Europe founded on cooperation and integration. There is nothing ‘unpatriotic’ about campaigning for the best interests of the UK; the implication that Remainers are anti-British is a nonsense. And there is something perverse about a ‘patriotism’ that is willing to risk the sort of long-term damage to the UK that Brexit is likely to cause.

Brexiters are fond of dismissing Remainers as metropolitan elites—part of their argument that we do not speak for ‘the people’. The tendency (on both sides) to portray the referendum result in terms of simple divisions—young versus old, graduates versus non-graduates, cities versus the rest of the country, and so on—should also be rejected. A significant proportion of people in London, Manchester and Birmingham (and the many other areas that were majority Remain) voted for Brexit; and a significant proportion of people in majority-Brexit areas voted for Remain. The notion that Remainers are an elite is laughable to most of us: any elite which includes someone like me—economically poor, insecure in employment and housing, highly critical of neoliberalism—is a strange one indeed. As for the supposed ‘representatives of the people’ such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Douglas Carswell, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail: if standing in a gilded elevator with the multi-millionaire president-elect of the United States (and angling to become UK ambassador to the US, not to mention numerous attempts to become part of Westminster), if public school education and privilege and hedge-fund financing and corporate global media, are considered the marks of the non-elite, then we have entered unusual times. Many of the most prominent Brexiters—Michael Gove, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, Christopher Grayling, and the like—have energetically promoted policies of austerity that have hit hardest the very non-elites that they now claim to represent. The underlying truth, obscured by so much of the rhetoric, is that neither Brexit nor Remain stand for elites or non-elites; they are opposed positions in relation to EU membership, positions which attract the support of both elites and non-elites.

A compelling case can be made, therefore, to reject the demands of those Brexiters for Remainers to be silenced and for debate to cease. Such Brexiters are adopting anti-democratic rhetoric and simplifications intended deliberately to distort discussion. Right now, what is needed above all is a properly democratic debate. Article 50 will be triggered, and a process to leave the EU will start; that needs to be scrutinized and argued about, and the views of the 48% need to be part of that debate. Even if the UK ultimately leaves the EU, the terms of Brexit require careful debate. All we know at present is that 17 million people voted to leave the EU; we do not know what sort of exit they wanted, and there is no evidence that 52% of voters favoured a ‘hard’ Brexit. Almost certainly large numbers of the 17 million did not vote for ‘hard’ Brexit, which may end up being the only form of Brexit left on the table—and is the form of Brexit that many of the most vocal Brexiters are pushing for. At the very least, Remainers will play a vital role in ensuring that any ‘hard’ Brexit is decisively defeated.

Brexit may happen; but it is not inevitable. The Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond by-election was the result of opposition to Brexit. Cross-party initiatives are being forged to fight Brexit (and, in particular, ‘hard’ Brexit). The calls for a future referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are being made with increasing persuasion. Brexit is not a done deal; right now, as illustrated by the shambolic early stages of the process, it is ludicrous to talk about Brexit as a reality when those who want it are so clueless about what form it will take and what it will entail. Two years (or more) is an extremely long time in politics, particularly when the economic fall-out from the referendum result is likely to become more acute. As Martin Kettle suggests, time is on the Remainers side (and certainly time favours the Remainers more than it does the Brexiters), and it is a matter of continuously chipping away every day at the increasingly weak Brexit position, resisting outright ‘hard’ Brexit, making the compelling case through debate and democracy for Remain, and turning the 48% into 50+%. Those of us who support Remain should be making the case, clearly, confidently, positively and passionately—and repeatedly. We should be up for the fight ahead. As long as we are, we have good chances of success.