Is UK Democracy Under Threat?

Unless I’m mistaken, there is no electoral commission crying foul, no independent observers saying that the election result cannot be trusted because on 23 June, 2016, Britain was a failed or corrupt state that could not be trusted to deliver a free and fair vote.

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510750075_eeee488cd6_zI have argued elsewhere that the present outpouring of emotion from the recent referendum losing side is, in one sense, to be expected. It is part of the normal grief process.  (See Post Brexit Grief is Normal.)  However, the more calls there are for the decision to be set aside and for a second referendum, the more I become concerned about the threat to the democratic system which Britain used to be proud of.  Perhaps the potential weakening, even loss of democracy, is even more important than the loss of the EU membership, and even more important than the threatened loss of Scotland from the United Kingdom.

The arguments for setting aside the results just don’t stand up.

The campaign was unfair

I am the first to admit that it seemed a particularly bruising campaign on both sides. People argued passionately either what they genuinely thought to be true, or what they felt would appeal most to the electorate.  On both sides supposition was sometimes presented as gospel truth, and statistics were twisted to support a case.

All of this my be deplorable, but such practices aren’t strangers to any election.

We don’t yet have a truth commission which has to vet every argument or partisan document before it can be delivered.  Unless I’m mistaken, there is no electoral commission crying foul, no independent observers saying that the election result cannot be trusted because on 23 June, 2016, Britain was a failed or corrupt state that could not be trusted to deliver a free and fair vote.

The issue was so big

We are told that the issue was too big to be decided on by a vote.  Well, the elected government decided to solve an issue by granting the people of the country a decisive vote. And it seems ridiculous to try to undo that.  And unless you have a dictatorship or rule by an alleged meritocracy (the logical outcome of getting rid of democracy), everything is decided by a vote somewhere down the line.

Of course the outcome will have profound effects – some intended, as well as some unintended consequences.  In all elections there are people who come to rue their decision to vote in a particular way when they see what it means, or when the election promises are betrayed.

And the result of any national election always has huge effects.  Try telling students now paying tuition fees, or people having to move houses because of the ‘bedroom tax’, or people experiencing cuts in income and services that the issues resulting from how people voted in recent elections weren’t big.

Big issues are not strangers to any election.

People didn’t know what they were voting for

I’m sure that this is true for some people – but again, on both sides.  I have personally met people who chose a side at random, and those who asked friends or family members which way they ‘should’ vote.

All of this may be deplorable, but such practices aren’t strangers to any election.

Thankfully we don’t yet have a country where, in order to vote, you must have achieved a certain level of education and passed core examinations in statistics, economics, politics, and rhetoric.

Having trusted the people with a momentous decision and granted them a vote over joining the EU, it is difficult to argue that the people could not be trusted with a decision about leaving.

It was a narrow victory

You can always argue that the particular voting system is wrong and that if the pass mark is moved one way or the other, or if the votes are weighted in some other way you would get a different, perhaps more representative election result.  The Liberal Democrats and UKIP have been arguing for a change in the voting system for years.  But it would be wrong to hold a contest with one set of rules and then impose a different set of rules after the event to get a different result.  Any such post hoc fiddling with democracy would feel very dangerous.  If this vote is set aside, surely the legitimacy of any future vote is at risk.

If you plead that there are a lot of people wanting to set aside the result, it can easily slip into an absurd, potentially recursive argument.  Using the pressure of numbers (a petition) to try to set aside the result of numbers obtained in a free and fair election, is not only ridiculously ironic, but means that others could attempt to use numbers to set aside the result of the petition numbers.  And so the numbers game could go on ad infinitum.

I’m a committed democrat

Although she may not be the most popular political wife, I have some sympathy for Sarah Vine’s view that a lot of the anti-Brexit noise and calls for overturning of the democratic decision comes from people who are well-educated, articulate, in positions of authority, and used to getting their own way.  Whether or not this is true, the point is that media noise should not determine political outcome in a democratic society.  Those with the most influence and media presence should not be allowed to negate the legitimate choice of the majority if the country has been asked to make a decision.  Like it or not, the United Kingdom is governed by an imperfect democracy rather than an imperfect meritocracy (or epistocracy).

By nature I am not normally inclined to admire David Cameron.  I look forward to the days when the hold of the Etonian prefects on the rule of the country will be diminished. However, his behaviour and statements since the result of the EU Referendum have impressed me.  He seems to be one of the few people who is calmly saying: “The people have voted.  They have sent a clear message.  I don’t personally like that message.  But I am a committed democrat.  Let’s get on with it.”

3.9% of one of the largest turn-outs the country has known delivered a clear decision. That’s democracy in practice.  Let’s not seek to destroy the hugely important process just because we may not like the result.

I find the above arguments for accepting the UK Referendum result to be compelling. What do you think?

 

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