Holding on to democracy

Yesterday I was asked why I accept the result of the 2016 referendum in which a majority of English and Welsh voters chose to leave the European Union. Several reasons for not respecting the result were given. Among them,  the illegal actions of the Leave campaign was the most compelling. Unfortunately,  electoral law is quite often broken and but that rarely leads to results being overturned. The difficulty is that this is a marsh on which law, morality, philosophy and politics compete, but cannot assert complete authority. I have to accept the 2016 result, even though I believe it to be a disaster for the UK and damaging for the rest of Europe, because holding on to the principle of democracy is paramount. I explained why in a letter I wrote to friends a few days after the referendum. I’ve just re-read it, and there’s nothing I would change, though I’m more pessimistic after two more years of lies than I was then. If you are reading this, and are interested in what I think about these issues, you might like to read that post before continuing with this one.

Friends and colleagues in the other EU countries talk to me about Brexit much less often than the British political class seem to think. They have problems of their own (about which our politicians tend to be ignorant or condescending). They have already accepted the departure of the UK, which they see—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—to have been a disruptive, half-hearted member of the Union. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘punishing’ Britain or making an example of us, despite what politicians and journalists say here. They just focus on protecting the interests of an alliance the UK has chosen to leave, and which its other members continue to see, realistically, as their best guarantor of peace and prosperity. And that is the point: they struggle to understand why British people wanted to leave.

As I wrote in 2016, it seems to me that the reasons are multiple and complex. They include being an island, historic and cultural factors, the different ways Britain and continental Europe experienced the two World Wars, the legacy of empire, the rapid pace of social change and the neoliberal policies pursued by British governments since 1979. We can all have opinions about these things but there are no answers to them. Asking people to settle complex questions in a binary referendum was a dereliction of duty by MPs. In a representative democracy, we elect people (and pay them) to give careful attention to complicated matters. As electors, we can and do make a choice about which politician we trust, and we mostly feel we come well, until we learn we have been lied to.

So holding a referendum was a bad idea; a very bad one, I think. But it was decided by Parliament, which in our system is sovereign. The decision to implement the result of advisory referendum was also made by parliament. (The argument that it could be ignored will not hold: it would debase democracy to ask people to vote and then ignore the result.) If there was any doubt about the mandate for Brexit, it was ended when both major parties stood in the 2017 election promising that the UK would leave the European Union. That is the parliament we elected and it is sovereign.

It happens that, in my view, the way that democracy is organised in the UK is very flawed. Because of the constituency system based on a simple majority, most people’s votes do not make a difference to the outcome of an election. I have voted in every General Election since 1979, and never seen a government I voted for. Nor has anyone entered parliament for whom I cast my ballot. The British government likes proportional representation right for other assemblies (in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the European Parliament, even in the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945). But it prefers to hold onto the absolute power conferred by the existing system for its own use.

That has contributed to the divisive nature of our politics. Since 1979, governments elected with 40% of the vote (or less) have wielded crushing majorities that have allowed them to impose their decisions on huge sections of the population. It is not surprising then that 17 million people expressed their rejection of the kind of place Britain has become. But 16 million voted the other way, and nothing has been done to recognise their interests, Politicians call hypocritically on the country to unite, even as they stoke the fires of division with their words. We remain an almost hysterically divided nation, in which argument has given way to assertion, where belief is taken as a mark of probity, and where reasonable questions go unheard. Few people will want to read this post.

So what can we do? Unfortunately, democracy is the only way forward if things are not to get much worse. In one route, we follow the democratic mandate of 2016 and leave the European Union. (If it had to happen, I hoped for a pragmatic relationship comparable to Norway’s, but the Conservative party’s own divisions is making that impossible.) In another, we have a referendum between the proposed deal and retaining membership. The third is that a General Election is won by a party that has stood on a platform of retaining membership of the EU. None of those choices is easy (and only the first is likely) because whichever we take, half the voters will reject.

I have long argued against the idealisation of democracy, which is usually the mark of demagogues. I think, with Winston Churchill and Raymond Aron, that democracy is a flawed system of government but it is one which better protects citizens from government oppression than the available alternatives. As the child of a refugee whose world was destroyed between 1941 and 1944, I know that this is more than words. Right now, politicians are playing with fire, from self-interest or fanaticism. Democracy is all that protects us. The price of that protection is having to accept things we find dreadful, but refusing to pay it opens the door to worse. I don’t know what should or will happen now. On balance, I’d probably like a People’s Vote, but if it happens, and if it leads to us staying in the EU, it will not heal the divisions. So I hold onto what I wrote in June 2016:

No one knows what will happen now, but societies belong to people, not governments. They are built through relationships, not treaties, in what we do, not what we say. Most of us want to live in peace with others. Most of us accept that people are different. Most of us know that life is short and precious.

The image at the top of this post is of Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, destroyed in 1539 during the English Reformation.


  1. Oh I’ve just spent an hour reading about the history of Fountains Abbey (which of course I visited when in York but knew really nothing about) Nothing like a bit of history… its travails, politics, twists and turns, to take you away from our present ones! Thanks…

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