Not for the first time, I am perplexed by comments that have been made about ‘democracy’. The Liberal Democrats have decided to put themselves forward for election on the basis that they will oppose Brexit, and that if they are elected into office they will seek to revoke Britain’s notice of leaving the EU. Cue sound and fury. Stephen Kinnock calls it ‘undemocratic’. David Starkey, never knowingly under-hyperbolized, calls liberalism an “extremist, anti popular, undemocratic creed”, and throws in snobbery, contempt and intolerance for good measure. Polly Toynbee, normally sensible, also describes the policy as ‘extremist’ and says this is ‘to hell with the will of the people’. And a letter in the ‘i’ complains: “anyone who voted surely knows the principle of democracy is that whoever gains the majority in a vote is the winner! If we allow this to happen, where will it end?”
I wonder what we have wrought by not having civics lessons in schools. First, as a matter of general principle:
- Democracies are systems of government that are open to argument. The suppression of disagreement or opposition by a majority is no more consistent with democracy than the suppression of disagreement or opposition by a minority.
- Neither majority voting nor the process of election is sufficient to produce a democratic outcome. Many dictators in the world have been elected. Many seek support through referenda – Mussolini, Franco, Marcos are illustrative.
- “Winner takes all” is not a democratic principle. That’s how you get Mugabe or Maduro.
- The “will of the people” is not fixed. People can change their minds.
Then, in relation specifically to the UK:
- The UK has a system of representative democracy. People vote for representatives, not for parties or leaders. (Parties and leader can change. If you voted in 2015 for a government led by David Cameron, or in 2017 for a government led by Theresa May, you were mistaken about what you were voting for. If you voted in 2017 for Sam Gyimah, Sarah Wollaston, or anyone who joined the Independent Group, you are now represented by someone in a different party. )
- Referenda are not binding – the 2016 referendum was advisory.
- Parliamentary elections, by contrast, are binding within the UK system. Some of the advocates of Brexit believe that the referendum trumps parliamentary democracy; but the legitimacy of the parliament subsequently elected in 2017 is at least as great, if not greater, than the 2016 vote, and in due course the legitimacy of any parliament elected in 2019 or 2020 will supersede both.
- Some politicians work to the (debatable) principle that representatives receive a ‘mandate’ from the electorate to carry out their stated policies. The Liberal Democrat motion put the case that “the election of a Liberal Democrat majority government [would] be recognised as an unequivocal mandate to revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU.”
- Another view of democracy, put by Schumpeter, is that it is an institutional process where opposing parties compete for votes. Failing all else, the Liberal Democrats are attempting to gain the votes of at least the 6 million people who signed a petition asking for revocation.
There is nothing remotely ‘undemocratic’ about standing for election on a commitment to change current government policy. As to whether the position is popular, we’ll find out very soon.