In part three of our What’s Nexit? series: the response to the Brexit challenges not the result of the referendum but the democratic process which achieved it. Read previous instalments of What’s Nexit? here.
The aftermath of the Brexit referendum highlighted some troubling malformations in society’s democratic spirit. Perhaps Greece’s ignored 2015 plebiscite led us to believe that this once-hallowed institution is but a shadow of its former self. I wonder if people appreciate how fortunate we are to live when we are allowed to have a referendum? Likely not. Like so many things we have not had to earn – not had to fight for, sacrifice for, give up for, or long for – we take it for granted.
A referendum or plebiscite (and I do prefer the latter term which conjures up its Roman vestige) is an astonishing amount of power for the state to place in the hands of the people. Reflect on how little of your daily life you actually control. The gravity of the previous fact should begin to sink in. Today, every aspect of our lives is controlled, legislated, dictated, “permitted” or “denied”, according to the whims of a political class that seems progressively more abstracted from ourselves as time wears on. And yet – and yet! – when “we the people” are given the awesome responsibility of determining our own fate we shrug our shoulders, or worse, want to destroy this most precious of democratic gifts.
Here is a sample of comments swirling around in the wake of the Brexit vote:
Last week 50,000 people protested the referendum result in London. Others have made serious overtures to Westminster that parliament ignore the result of the vote, citing the “non-binding” nature of the referendum. A Cambridge PHD candidate with whom I communicate made the astonishing assertion that the value of a democratic institution is measured by the quality of the outcome it produces.
Hear that again: the value of a democratic institution is not the principle for which it stands, but rather the “quality” of the outcome it produces.
I suggested that he was advocating something quite novel: a form of democratic consequentialism.
“Yes, that’s right,” he maintained, quite undeterred.
I was stunned.
For a great many people, the referendum was not a choice between two possible futures, both with their own peculiar merits and disadvantages. Instead, it was a choice between the “true proposition” and “an error”. One side had so convinced itself of its predictive and crystal-ball-gazing powers, that they knew what the future would be. And they knew one choice was good, and the other bad. Naturally, if you are possessed with this rare and unparalleled social, economic and political clairvoyance, should those not blessed with these gift “ruin” your vote and make the “wrong” choice, you’ll want to “fix the system” to make sure these “mistakes” don’t happen ever again.
If you permit one class of people to determine what is “right” for the rest, and consequently design institutions so they only produce the kind of outcomes that meet this group’s definition of “right”, you have already begun the slow descent into tyranny.
We find ourselves on the threshold of irreparably changing our democratic institutions. We seem inclined to make sure we get “the right kind” of outcomes – and that ill-informed, irrational, elderly, bigoted people in our society don’t mess it up for the rest of us.
I for one am alarmed at the prospect.
I feel compelled to raise a pertinent but apparently buried fact: democracy isn’t perfect. It makes mistakes. But it’s not because it’s perfect that we chose it, fought wars over it.
We embrace democracy because of what it isn’t.
Also on The Big Smoke
- What’s nexit? Part one – The economic effects of the Brexit
- What’s nexit? Part two – Immigration in the post-Brexit world
In the realm of politics, there are only two kinds of political arrangement: the rule of all, and rule of the few. This “few” can be one (monarchy), a handful (oligarchy) or lots (aristocracy). Since the dawn of sedentary life, the rule of the few has had one fatal flaw: everyone wants to be that few, and there is no end to the civil strife from struggling over which few gets to hold the reigns of power that season.
I’m not going to bore you with examples. Just pick up any history book, or indeed any book written prior to 1900 and there it is: a litany of conflicts, conquests, civil wars, revolutions, coups, usurpations and chaos. The solution to this strife was democracy. If you place power in the hands of everyone (or at least the appearance of power: what we currently have) you instantly dissipate both the opportunity and the catalyst for these conflicts.
Naturally, there are examples of democracies that suffered civil discord (American Civil War: 1861 to 1865; the rise of Hitler: 1933), but prior to democracy, every society was/is only one private army away from the dissolution of the state.
A democratic process that doesn’t achieve the outcome you desire is not an indictment against democracy itself – its a sign that more people disagree…People bandied about the term “tyranny of the majority” – tyranny of the minority is much, much worse.
My writing may have the appearance of high drama but follow my logic: if you permit one class of people to determine what is “right” for the rest, and consequently design institutions so that they only produce the kind of outcomes that meet this group’s definition of “right”, you have already begun the slow descent into tyranny.
We may not agree with the result of the Brexit vote. Indeed, you may vehemently disagree with it. But that doesn’t sanction a rebellion against the very thing that permitted you to express your God-given right to your opinion in the first place. And let us not forget the philosophic incoherence of the proposition of so-called “democratic consequentialism”. Who decides? Who says, “this is the right outcome”? Who will raise their hand in this diverse human experience and say, “I’m the one who knows best and I’ll be the decider”? We’ve tried that before. It doesn’t work. It only ever led to civil war, dictatorship or totalitarianism.
A referendum or plebiscite is an astonishing amount of power to place in the hands of the people. When given the responsibility of determining our own fate we shrug our shoulders, or worse, want to destroy this most precious of democratic gifts.
Finally, I want to come to the point that “some decisions are too important to be decided by referendum”. What does this even mean? What do you think an election is? Surely, every three or four years people reflect on issues as equally complex as the Brexit vote – in fact there are many more issues up for grabs. What if a party wanted your vote on the basis that leaving the EU was part of their platform? Now disallowed? Oh, wait…that happened: it was called UKIP. So, by the previous logic when issues become too complicated, the regular, uninformed (and non-clairvoyant) folk shouldn’t be allowed to cast a ballot…?
Well that’s it then…democracy is dead.
To all those for whom the Brexit vote was not what you wanted, it’s okay. Life goes on. In truth, you don’t know what the future holds, just as the people who voted Leave don’t know. Let’s not pretend that there was a “right” and a “wrong” choice. There were two options up for debate and each choice offered its own peculiar merits and disadvantages. The people weighed these and voted accordingly. A democratic process that doesn’t achieve the outcome you desire is not an indictment against democracy itself – its a sign that more people disagree with your position than agree with it. Maybe you didn’t make a strong enough case for your side. Or maybe, the benefits of your choice just don’t fall on as many people as you think they do; this is often why a proposition fails in a democracy. As much as people bandied about the term “tyranny of the majority” – I don’t think they really know what that means – tyranny of the minority is much, much worse.
Lest we forget, a plebiscite is a gift bestowed upon you by forefathers that died in the mud – gangrenous legs, black faces, deaf from shells and shaking from shock. Democracy isn’t perfect – but it’s a hell of a lot better than what it isn’t.