How democratic are the Liberal Democrats?

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 or 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.

The ‘will of the majority’ is not a democratic principle

I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but the storm of protest when I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago tells me that some people really can’t tell the difference between democracy and dictatorship.  Twitter doesn’t lend itself to extended arguments, and it’s difficult even to reply sensibly; once a tweet has cropped up in four or five postings, there are too many threads to take account of.  The (admittedly truncated) comment that sparked people off was this:

Democracy is not a system that “implements the majority’s will”. It’s a system that respects and protects the rights of minorities. 

This attracted withering scorn.  One critic – a politics lecturer! – wrote:

Some confusion here about the meaning of democracy, from an emeritus professor of politics.

I tried to explain in these terms. 

The main models of democracy are institutional (eg elections, protected opposition), prescriptive (eg rule of law, deliberation) and normative (eg participation, rights). Majorities are only a device for resolving disagreements. The reason why we have oppositions is that majority views are never enough. Madisonian democracy treats majorities as a coalition of minority interests. In no democratic country does the winner take all.

Majority rule is a convention – a method for arriving at decisions, rather than a principle in itself.  It’s been used (like some other methods) in a variety of circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances are not democratic. I tried to explain that ” majority rule is not intrinsically democratic – it’s also used in dictatorships. Without contest, respect for rights or the ability to vote again, it’s undemocratic.”

It is absurd to suggest that “majority rule is used in dictatorships”. Elections in dictatorships are never used to express the majority will; if they were, they would not be dictatorships.

That’s an astonishing reply. Most of the dictators in the world have been elected.  What makes them dictators is the suppression of opposition and civil rights.

Bizarre. You actually think elections in dictatorships are free and fair, such that they actually represent the majority’s will?

You think that a majority can’t ever truly be oppressive, racist or fascist? Dictators often seek majority votes: eg Mussolini 1934, Hitler 1936, Franco 1947, Marcos 1973. “Autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.” (from https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2018.16)

That is exactly my point. Majority voting is only democratic when elections are free and fair. Therefore, you cannot delegitimise majority voting by pointing to the existence of elections in authoritarian regimes, where elections are not free and fair.

An election where winner takes all on a majority vote cannot be democratic, regardless of whether the process is fair. That’s what gives you Mussolini or Mugabe. Democracy must protect the rights of minorities and of opposition, or it isn’t democracy.

And here we circle back again to your smuggling-in of liberal principles of minority protection into the definition of democracy. Opposition is essential for democracy but winner-takes-all is entirely compatible with it as well. Stop conflating important concepts.

The key point here is that majority rule is never, in itself, sufficient to guarantee democracy.  Beyond that, the translation of the conventions of majority rule into claims about ‘the will of the people’  is itself questionable – a device of demagogues and dictators.

Britain has lost sight of democracy, but it is the European Union that has abandoned its citizens.

We’re hearing a great deal from people who feel that someone or other is ‘betraying’ people about Brexit.  There are around 750,000 references on Google to the phrase ‘Brexit betrayal’, including extensive coverage in the right-wing press, and nearly all of them seem to come from one side of the argument – the same side whose preferences or ‘Will’ have been slavishly, and impractically, followed by the UK government.

I, too, feel a sense of betrayal.  It is a betrayal both by the UK government and by the European Union. The European Union made a solemn declaration that all citizens of the European Union had fundamental rights.  The UK, and every other member state, pledged to protect those rights; the primary mechanisms for that protection was to be the action of the member state.  Both parties have reneged on that commitment, and as part of the same process: they have treated the negotiation just as if it was about a member giving notice to a club, rather than secession from a union.

Article 50 may have been new, but there was a precedent for secession.  When Greenland left the European Union, its citizens were given individually the option of deciding whether or not they wanted to continue as European citizens.  Before the referendum, I had vaguely supposed that something of the kind would be arranged for citizens of the UK – it was only as the arguments developed that I could see it wasn’t going to happen, and tried to raise the issue.  Departing the EU stands to create devastating problems for families, for workers and for people resident abroad in either bloc.  That is why  hundreds of thousands of UK citizens have taken up citizenship of other EU countries to avoid the consequences.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.  Rights that are conditional on governments paying a membership subscription are not ‘fundamental’ rights.  But it has become clear that states, not citizens, are the units that the EU is made up of.  Despite the fine words and the formal declarations, the people who live in those states are not the EU’s citizenry. Brexit stands to strip every European – both those who are citizens of the United Kingdom, and those who are citizens of other member states – of the protections they were faithfully promised.  There is a clear message in the negotiations, one that goes to every citizen of every member state:  the only citizenship you have that matters is the citizenship of your home country. European citizenship has been degraded to the status of a junk bond: a promise that will never be kept.

Throughout the process, too, both the EU and the UK have treated the negotiations as if they were a matter of international relations, a negotiation between the British Government and the Commission.  That is why the EU made no direct appeal to its British citizens during the referendum, and did nothing to safeguard their interests.

Compounding the problems, the process followed in the UK has been profoundly undemocratic. Democracy is not the rule of the majority. Majority voting is only a convention for resolving disputes. The referendum itself had some claim to democratic legitimacy, even if this was questionable; it excluded millions of people directly affected by the decision, including Britons living in the EU and citizens from other EU countries living in Britain.  But voting is not everything.   One of the tests is that people should have been engaged in a discursive deliberation; that has not happened, because the government was determined to keep its stance a secret (ostensibly, in case the people they were negotiating with found out about it; more probably because they didn’t know what their stance was).   More basically, democracy is supposed to be  a system that defends the rights of minorities.  That is something that this process has signally failed to do.

Additional note:  A petition to parliament to revoke Article 50 has picked up nearly 900,000 signatures in less than a day – 10,000 of them just while I was adding this note.   Find it here.

 

Planning Brexit: the government’s assault on democracy

The Brexit process has been marked throughout by a thoroughgoing disregard for democratic principles and political legitimacy.

First, the referendum vote excluded more than a million British citizens with a direct interest in the issue.  That decision was upheld in court, which meant that it was legal, but it meant at the outset that the process was neither democratic nor legitimate.

Second, the process to date has overridden the rights of the minority.   James Madison argued, in the Federalist Papers, that every majority had to be understood as a coalition of minorities, and the convention of majority rule was based on respect for the rights of the minorities that remained.  That principle is fundamental to liberal democracy.  The government has a duty to find a resolution of the vote that will maintain the fundamental rights of the citizens who it is bound by law to protect.  However, nothing in the debates, and nothing in the government’s current plans, has given any attention to the issue.

Third, the government is proceeding without respecting its previous undertakings to consult directly with devolved governments.  This, again, is not about the legal point; it’s about legitimacy.  Ms May’s administration has been messing around for six months, and now they have the gall to claim that there isn’t time.   A decision to consult is not a commitment to agree.  It is disturbing that the consultation has not taken place.

Fourth, the government has proceeded in a way which is inimical to democratic conventions.  It is disgraceful that they should have tried to go ahead without parliamentary debate, and no less disgraceful that it should have taken a citizens’ challenge to establish the obvious principle that they do not have the power to wipe out existing laws or citizens’ rights by fiat.   The most surprising thing about the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller is that it should have to be said at all.

40 years of freedom

I’m two days late, but then I was late for my sister’s birthday as well, and I hope I can be forgiven if I mention it now.  It’s 40 years since the Carnation Revolution of 1974 led to the fall of the Salazar government in Portugal and the birth of a new social democracy.  (If you missed the anniversary in the British press, it might be because they didn’t think to mention it.) It’s too easy to forget what Europe used to be like before the EU. Portugal has its problems, but it’s more prosperous, more secure, better housed and better educated than it used to be. Happy anniversary.

Poverty, democratic governance and poverty reduction strategies

I have given a presentation today at an International Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey, organised by Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University and Sosyal Politikalar Dernegi.  The argument was this:

The Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers have become a significant experiment in world governance.  Poverty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, and responses to poverty need to be adapt to a wide range of circumstances.  In the belief that deliberative democracy is the route to prosperity, international organisations have directed governments around the world to undertake a process of strategic planning, based on participative development and negotiation of policy with stakeholders. However, the emphasis in the PRSPs seems to have fallen more on the methods they use than the substance of the strategies.  Democracy is not valued only for its process; it matters what it achieves.   If PRSPs are to help the poor, they need to extend their focus, moving beyond procedural issues towards substantive policies that stand to benefit the poor.

Here is a copy of the slides and a copy of the paper.

Symposium in Istanbul

Good news from Africa

This table is drawn from a recent study looking at the fall of mortality in Kenya. It points to a general trend: across Africa, more children are surviving.

Under 5 mortality (per 1000 live births)
Previous studies (1998-2007)

Most recent study (2005-2009)
Benin

160 (2001)

125 (2006)
Ethiopia

166 (2000)

124 (2005)
Ghana

111 (2003)

80 (2008)
Kenya

115 (2003)

74 (2009)
Liberia

110 (2007)

114 (2009)
Madagascar

94 (2004)

72 (2009)
Mali

229 (2001)

191 (2006)
Namibia

62 (2000)

69 (2007)
Niger

274 (1998)

198 (2006)
Nigeria

201 (2003)

157 (2008)
Rwanda

152 (2005)

103 (2008)
Senegal

121 (2005)

85 (2009)
Tanzania

147 (1999)

112 (2005)
Uganda

152 (2001)

128 (2006)
Zambia

168 (2002)

119 (2007)
Zimbabwe

102 (1999)

83 (2006)

Stephen Radelet, in Emerging Africa?, claims that the factors behind this improvement are

  • “more democratic and accountable governments
  • more sensible economic policies,
  • the end of the debt crisis and major changes in relationships with the international community
  • new technologies that are creating new opportunities for business and political accountability, and
  • a new generation of policymakers, activists, and business leaders.”

There are problems – such as the recent (hopefully short term) increase in mortality in Liberia. But the trend is clear, and it is very good news indeed – especially for those who are concerned about population increase, because there is a clear and strong association between infant survival and the number of children a woman must have.