#Brexit: Democracy begins with a vote, but it doesn’t end there

I was unable to attend the Put It To The People march at the weekend for secret reasons, but I have signed the poorly worded petition to ‘Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU’.1

While the march was taking place, I spotted several snide comments on social media, repeating the mantra that it is essentially a campaign to ignore or overturn democracy. Giles Fraser and Sarah Vine, for example.

This prompts a return to the thoughts and conversations I have been having over the past few weeks about the nature and definition of ‘democracy’ and how a free society makes decisions.

Too often during this crisis the political debate has focused on just one aspect of democracy: The vote. And not just the concept of voting in the abstract, but specifically the referendum vote of 23rd June 2016 that delivered the mandate to leave the European Union. Despite the narrow margin, and despite the fact that the Leave.eu campaign broke electoral law, the result was and remains a powerful political fact.

But there are other aspects to the concept of ‘democracy’ that have, in my view, been underweighted. A fully functioning democracy requires way more than a vote. There are plenty of oppressive countries that allow citizens to vote for the government (Iran, for example) but nevertheless constrain freedom in other ways. The vote is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy.

Democracy requires proper rules to govern its operation, ideally a constitution. It needs an unwavering adherence to the rule of law, and an independent judiciary to ensure that happens. Democracy means a guarantee of free speech so that all voices can be heard. It also means a robust academia bringing expertise to decision making, and an equally robust free press and civil society holding institutions to account.

Crucially, democracy is also about elected representatives making decisions and voting on the government’s policy in a parliament. It is absolutely about listening to all sections of society, weighing their competing claims, and then making compromises.

Throughout the Brexit process, each of these other requirements of democracy have been attacked. Let’s take them in turn.

  • Democracy requires proper rules to govern its operation, ideally a constitution. Theresa May’s government has repeatedly sought to bend and break parliamentary rules to avoid meaningful scrutiny. MPs seeking to perform that scrutiny were called ‘saboteurs‘ by the Brexit supporting Daily Mail. The Government was (uniquely) held in contempt of parliament for failing to publish details of its Brexit planning. The Government has abandoned promised votes in order to avoid losing them, and yet last week the Prime Minister accuses MPs of wasting time on Brexit debates. All this shows distain for the constraints on the executive, an attack on democracy.
  • It needs an unwavering adherence to the rule of law, and an independent judiciary to ensure that happens. The government resisted the idea that MPs should be allowed to vote on the triggering of Article 50 (see ‘distain for parliament’ above). It fought Gina Miller all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost. When the High Court earlier handed down a ruling consistent with the laws that parliament has made, the judges were branded ‘Enemies of the People’ by Brexit supporting newspapers. All this shows contempt for the rule of law and was an attack on democracy.
  • Democracy means a guarantee of free speech so that all voices can be heard. Throughout, anyone suggesting that Brexit is a bad idea has been vilified as a ‘Remoaner.’ Those who wish to pursue a ‘soft Brexit’ or to argue for Remain have been told that their words are illegitimate because the question has already been settled. That is not how democracy works: we should always be free to suggest that our current course is wrong and to argue for an alternative policy.
  • It also means a robust academia bringing expertise to decision making, and an equally robust free press and civil society holding institutions to account. “People in this country have had enough of experts” said Michael Gove, Sarah Vine’s husband, back in 2016. The civil service are routinely accused of attempting the thwart Brexit. But decrying expertise is not democratic, because it denies people the chance to make an informed decision.
  • Crucially, democracy is also about elected representatives making decisions and voting on the government’s policy in a parliament. And yet when some of those elected representatives defied the government whip, they were branded as ‘mutineers’ by the Daily Telegraph. The paper was abetted in this attack by the silence of Mrs May and her ministers. Last night parliament voted for something that a sovereign parliament was entitled to do, which is to take control of its own business from an inept government that does not command a majority. For a parliament to limit the power of a government is profoundly and essentially democratic, yet it is being spun by some Brexit supporters as the opposite.
  • It is absolutely about listening to all sections of society, weighing their competing claims, and then making compromises. Theresa May not only failed to do this, but she never even tried. No attempt was made to seek losers consent’ or to edge towards a form of Brexit that all MPs could vote for – especially those Labour MPs whose stood on a manifesto that supported Brexit. After losing her majority at the 2017 General Election, the Prime Minister should and could have realised that she had no mandate for her vision of Brexit, and made compromises accordingly. Instead she ignored that obligation. This, too, was undemocratic.

In summary: Remainers and Brexit-skeptics have used entirely legitimate and democratic means to scrutinise, check and debate Brexit. Meanwhile, the Brexit cheerleaders have used anti-democratic means to avoid scrutiny and accountability.

Now one might say that we are trying to scrutinise, check and debate something that has already been decided. That the time for all that was prior to the referendum. Remainers are trying shut the door after the horse has bolted. They are trying to test drive the car or survey they house after it has been purchased. Scrutiny is pointless when the decision has been made.

This sounds persuasive, but these are not the correct metaphors for the referendum. A run-away horse, or an expensive purchase, are both one time decisions that cannot be reversed.

That is simply not true for a public vote. We run and re-run votes all the time. Public polling and the actual results of general and local elections show us that ‘the people’ change their minds all the time, usually in the light of events and the performance of the politicians. The ‘Will of the People’ has a half-life of days, not months or years.

The lawyer David Allen Green said it brilliantly:

A referendum is either democratic or irreversible, but it cannot be both.

Just as no Parliament can bind its successors, no one electorate on one day can bind a democracy forever.

A democracy can always change its mind and at any time.

The central idea of the People’s Vote campaign is that the only thing that could legitimately trump the 2016 referendum result is another referendum. More democracy. Overturning the result in a court could happen; or the government and parliament could choose to simply not act on the ‘advisory’ result. Both things would be legal, but politically terrible. Only the revised, updated, reconsidered ‘will of the people’ could possibly revise the earlier decision to leave the EU with any legitimacy. People keep saying that another referendum would divide the country. But it could perversely become the thing that neutralises the poison.2

There is more to say on the concept of voting. The latest public vote on this issue was not the 2016 referendum but the 2017 General Election. We, the British people, expressed our collective will that no party should command a majority in the House of Commons. That no party would be able to deliver Brexit without compromise. In the past few weeks our MPs have slowly but surely forced the government to compromise. This a feature of the system, not a bug. And it is the natural outcome of the 2017 results. Anyone complaining that a minority government is not getting its own way is effectively seeking to deny the ‘will of the people’.

A public vote is the start of a conversation, not the final word.


1. I think the petition is poorly worded because it combines two propositions, and the second does not follow from the first. Yes, revocation of Article 50 would be a prerequisite for staying in the EU after all, but it is crucial to make the case that such a move would also be in the national interest as an end in itself. There is now a wide consensus that Theresa May, abetted by cross-party support in the House of Commons, triggered Article 50 too early and squandered control over the Brexit process. Revocation is something we can do unilaterally and would allow us to regroup and come up with new ideas, including how to properly Brexit. Remainers, #FBPE and #PeoplesVote campaigners don’t seem to countenance this possibility, and so they don’t talk about it. In doing so they squander allies for revocation that could be found on the sensible Leave side of the debate.

2. It’s interesting to remember that not everyone cottoned on to this immediately. In the days after the referendum I recall too much chat from Remainers about simply setting that vote aside because it was technically ‘advisory.’ I think this spooked many Leavers and sullied the discourse, because for any government to have simply ignored it would have been democratically intolerable. As I wrote at the time, we had to try to leave.

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