Still holding on to democracy

Dear Michael, 

Thank you for your reply to my piece about democracy and the Brexit Referendum. I was going to write directly, because I didn’t want to fall into the kind of ping-pong that is always looking for the last word. Like you, I think we agree on almost all the important questions. Then, as I wrote, my thoughts grew like bindweed, and so I’ve put them here. Please don’t think of them as a counterargument. Writing is how I think, and this is just me walking a bit further down the road we’re both on.

Like you, I think politicians should campaign on their beliefs, but they must also listen and be willing to adjust their positions. My MP is Kenneth Clarke, and I respect him for sticking to his long-held beliefs and voting against Article 50. His leadership may be why the constituency voted 57% Remain, when those around voted 55-60% Leave. But there are many other positions I wish he hadn’t stuck to. Tony Blair may have used focus groups but he didn’t listen to any over the Iraq war, and his self-belief has proved catastrophic, Our present crisis has been created by politicians so sure of their beliefs that they do not listen to argument or even to facts. Faith untempered by doubt is a sure recipe for human misery.

The immediate problem is the irreconcilability of different types of principle. I’d welcome a judicial inquiry into the conduct of the referendum because it is important to establish the truth and, if necessary, establish better safeguards against electoral misfeasance. (And we agree that there should be a comprehensive renewal of our democratic processes with a constitution to prevent political freelancing.)  But I doubt whether, unless it showed evidence that ballot boxes were actually stuffed by one side, such an inquiry would change the political reality. Yes, we were lied to. But when were we not? It may be that the lies swayed votes, but I must then ask what may have influenced mine. The problem is that this is miasma of supposition. Anyone who goes in is claiming, implicitly or explicitly, to know how another person thinks, better than they do themselves. And that is the end of democracy: it is the rationale for Plato’s Guardians, who make wise decisions because they alone can assess the truth.

Even when it has not be said overtly – and it often has been said overtly – the implication is that people who voted Leave were misled, gullible or didn’t know their own minds. That is always possible in human affairs, but I wouldn’t have much time for anyone who claimed to know it about me. Democratic argument depends on respecting that people believe what they say they believe. You can tell me I’m wrong, and I’ll happily debate with you about why I think what I think. You might persuade me to change my mind. Tell me I’ve been duped, and that if I saw things as clearly as you I would inevitably agree, and I will put you down for a condescending git. That is the bog some Remainers have stepped into. I think there was illegal interference in the referendum but it does not allow me to infer or claim that the result would be different. People might accept the voiding of a ballot with clear evidence that the tally was manipulated. I don’t think they would accept it on the supposition that they would have voted differently if only they hadn’t been told x or y or z. One problem with the People’s Vote (and there are several) is that people might react against at being asked to vote again on something about which they feel they have already given their view  Perhaps that’s why opinion polls have moved so little, despite the tsunami of information about the consequences of leaving.

This is what I mean by a clash of intellectual principles – in this case, law and democracy. And the law is a double edged sword, It is now being invoked to defend democracy. It has been used to subvert it: the Nuremberg laws stripped my father of his civic rights. Civil disobedience is an honourable part of democratic life. In the referendum, it was law that denied people a vote by right of residency (the millions of EU citizens living in the UK) or by citizenship (the millions of British citizens living outside the UK). Like democracy, the law is only as good as those who administer it.

As I said yesterday, I have no answers. I feel we are walking a narrow and crumbling path  in the fog, through the Grimpen Mire. We need political leadership, but of the kind that can say: stop, we are in a difficult and dangerous place. We can discuss how we got here later. Right now, let’s speak honestly and respectfully about how to get somewhere safer, with the least harm to ourselves, our neighbours and our institutions. That is a task for real political leadership, but few MPs seem prepared to step up to the plate.

Yours in friendship


The image above is from a gravestone at Crowland Abbey, dissolved in 1539; it seems a hopeful symbol in these times.