Democracy is not just casting votes

Published by the i paper (7th November, 2016)

The Brexit battle is intensifying. Theresa May, the country’s most prominent convert to the cause, has come out fighting against High Court judges who dared remind her parliament is sovereign in this nation. She blasted opponents while claiming to be the guardian of democracy, delivering on the verdict of voters who had demanded to leave the European Union. ‘The people made their choice, and did so decisively,’ she stated in an article. ‘It is the responsibility of the government to get on with the job and to carry out their instruction in full.’

Ministers echoed her words on radio and television shows. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn tried to twist the knife into the prime minister’s fresh wound, saying Labour would block EU withdrawal moves without guaranteed access to the single market. The increasing vitriol pouring from newspaper pages on all sides shows fissures opening up over our country’s future. Those daring challenge the fanatics come in for nasty abuse. Even firms struggling to respond to the falling pound are strafed with flak.

No-one can doubt the toxicity of this debate has poisoned national discourse, sanctioning intolerance while sweeping aside all other issues. Foreign diplomats and business people tell me they are amazed to see a nation renowned for its sobriety start lurching around in self-destructive style. Perhaps they should be less surprised, given this is the home of Shakespearean tragedy. Yet it is depressing to see these growing divisions.

At the heart of Brexit lies one word: democracy. This was the rallying cry of the triumphant campaigners against the EU, declaring in the vaguest terms that Britain must ‘take back control’. It is amusing to hear radio listeners rip into Brussels red tape, then fail to identify one regulation they want lifted. Yet Leavers tapped into a visceral sense of popular unease over elitism and lack of power – although now with shameless hypocrisy they attack judges and MPs who merely re-assert fundamental principles of our political system.

The debate throws up deep issues over the nature of democracy. We are lucky to live in one of only 20 nations judged ‘full democracies’ in an annual Economist Intelligence Unit study. Fewer than one in ten people on the planet are so fortunate. Democracy, of course, goes far deeper than simply voting every few years, something underscored by despots who get their regimes rubber-stamped in dodgy elections. Many of our current tensions arise from a mandate delivered through direct democracy clashing with the representative democracy embodied by Westminster.

That mandate was clear: a majority of those voting in a heavy turnout backed Brexit, however unwise the decision or unintended the consequences. Yet they were offered a binary choice so this did not bind over the nature of departure, neither in managing the process of severing ties with Brussels nor the terms of disengagement. So these issues are cause for legitimate – and passionate – political debate given their significance for every citizen and business in the land.

This is especially true when there are so many variations of Brexit and the government’s efforts to discretely open discussions across Europe are being rebuffed. ‘They can’t tell us what they want so how can we open negotiations?’ asked one diplomatic source. Yet Leavers seem to think it enough to just keep on repeating the tired mantra that voters backed them rather than discuss issues of genuine national concern. And ministers at helm of a distrusted political system demand our faith while saying glibly they will secure the best possible deal. Queries are brushed aside as insults to the electorate, demands for debate dismissed as posturing by defeated elitists.

Sir Winston Churchill famously described democracy as ‘the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. Yet if it is to mean anything, especially in testing global times, it is surely the right of judges to uphold the law in ruling the mother of parliaments should play its proper role over the Brexit process. Just as it is for journalists to question their wisdom with splenetic headlines. And for fulminating rabble-rousers such as Nigel Farage to respond in fury with talk of ‘betrayal’, as he and his ilk will claim endlessly in the months ahead.

Farage once told us Brexit was the most important decision of our lifetime. He was right – and the voters have made their calamitous move. Yet as reality intrudes on simplistic talk of ‘taking back control’, the Ukip leader and his fellow travellers seem to think this epic event should be carried out in an atmosphere devoid of debate and with disregard for the usual due processes. This is profoundly undemocratic given its immense impact, especially when there are so many potential paths and pitfalls ahead.

Democracy is not just about casting a vote – as David Davis said in a key speech pushing for the referendum. Now this maverick politician finds himself tasked with securing Brexit, picking through minefields he helped to lay. Some might explode with crippling economic, political and social impact. Yet democracy is not about stifling debate, let alone shutting down constitutional traditions. More than ever it demands public engagement in spirit of open debate, led by politicians responding to evolving popular will. This was proved by the referendum.

Yet Davis also made another key point in his speech. ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind it ceases to be a democracy.’ This is a crucial definition of our system of government. It is also one that might gather resonance in turbulent months ahead as we see those Brexit dreams turn into harsh reality.

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