What does the European Referendum tell us about British Democracy?

by Alexander Dodd*

Was Thursday a victory for democracy? Was the referendum an expression of radical democracy? If the rejection of the EU was on some level the rejection of a supposed democratic deficit, then we must also consider the nature and course of our own democracy. 52 percent of the votes cast declared a will to break with Europe, yet 48 percent voted to remain. Is it democratically just that we must now leave the EU because of the will of a slender majority?

Let us turn to the consideration of the core concept that is at play here. That is, the concept that a democracy ought to be governed by the will of the majority. This is, perhaps, an important tenet of British democracy, where our first past the post system promotes the idea that a majority vote for an MP gives them the mandate to represent a constituency of people, no matter how many of the electorate voted otherwise. Furthermore, this concept extends to the formation of our government, where the party with the majority of MPs has the mandate to govern the whole country's policy and law making. Is the same concept right in the context of a referendum? Is the concept valid at all?

The New Yorker front page for next week, by Barry Blitt.

The key question is really this: should majority rule be the core concept of democracy? Or, should we ensure that minority views are represented, at least to some extent, even if it goes against majority opinion? And here is the heart of the issue, and a concept I had not really thought about until my visit to the European Parliament: populism.

My visit to the European parliament was an eye opening experience. Yes, it was clear that for a lot of the eurocrats a federal Europe was the ambition. Yes, there was a clear goal for a Europe united under a common currency, an economic policy, and a political policy. And debating these issues presented the problem of populism: popular opinion was moving to reject these aspirations. Worse, popular opinion was moving to reject core aspects of the EU: freedom of movement, the bureaucracy, even the EU itself. The eurocrats expressed clearly their rejection of these populist movements, and yet provided no real explanation as to why populist concepts should be rejected.

And so I asked myself: what right do we have to reject popular opinion? On what grounds could the EU move towards a federal Europe against popular dissent? On reflection, I believed that the EU did not have the legitimacy to move against popular opinion in this way, but the eurocrats had a valid reason to reject populism, and that was because the majority of the populist opinions were premised on ignorance and untruths. Yet that does not invalidate the right of those holding these populist views to be represented. If they were not, then the institution would no longer be a democracy.

How can one reconcile the idea that popular opinion needs representation, but populism ought to be rejected? By the word populism, I mean those movements of opinion which are premised on ignorance. As I sat with twenty-nine other young people from across Europe, learning about and discussing the policies and political context of Europe, it was clear to me that a healthy democracy would promote precisely this kind of keen engagement with democracy. Every individual in a democracy has a right to an opinion, and a right for that opinion to be expressed, but they also have a duty to be engaged with the political process. A healthy democratic state should promote opportunities to facilitate this duty; disenfranchisement is the symptom of a terminally ill democracy.

Yet, even in a healthy democracy where political engagement is fostered in this way, is it the case that majority opinion trumps all? Is this democracy, or is this, again, populism? For, is the fear with populism not only the fear of ignorance, but also the fear that the will of the majority will utterly undermine the valid opinions of the minority? (valid because the minority are individuals too, with a right to representation). Is it not the case, therefore, that a healthy democracy is not one governed by majority opinion, but one that takes into consideration all opinions and works to resolve those opinions. Compromise, resolution, discussion, dialectic - dialectic! These should be the core tenets of a democratic state, not pig-headed debate. To not represent the views of our minority is essentially to strip them of their right to representation.

Returning to the referendum, it is evident that the campaign was mired by populism. It is also evident that the will of a small majority of people will strip the large minority of people who voted remain of their core right as citizens of a democracy to have their opinion represented. Or, this will be the case if we are not careful. For how should one proceed with a result like this? The majority have a right to representation, of course, and it is difficult to see how a democratic state could call itself democratic if it did not enact the will of the majority and leave the EU. Yet, for this to be a truly democratic exercise, I believe it is important for us to recognise the democratic value of compromise in the negotiations that will follow. We must be receptive to the worries of the minority, as well as the beliefs of the majority.

We must do this, not only because that would be democratically right, but because the civility of our society will depend on it. If a chasm between the small majority and large minority is allowed to develop, all we are left with is internal strife and conflict. This, in consequence, will result in more and more tribalism, more and more 'us and them' mentality, less compassion, less cohesion, less dialetic. My real concern now is what will happen to the UKIP party. Ostensibly it has got what it set out to achieve, but will it go away as one might expect? Or, will it continue to gain traction with the working classes that bought into their narrative of immigration and elitism? Will the populism of this party, that has rampaged on irrespective of the facts and figures, irrespective of the true consequences of our break with Europe, continue to spread? Will votes for a right-wing party expand at the cost of those for our centre-left party, the Labour party?

There is perhaps some hope that this mess might be resolved. Perhaps a second referendum will take place at some point, after negotiations with the EU, given the right climate. The West needs a strong Europe, and I hope that the EU can continue to provide the unity across Europe that I believe has promoted peace, prosperity, and liberty across the continent, as well as beyond it. Whether the UK will have a place in it is uncertain, but if the sacrifice of the UK means one thing, let it promote the democratisation of the EU, let it bring about the democratic reforms that it does need. Let it show the EU that is must gain a democratic mandate from its people before pushing forward with federalism. Let representation of the people be its governing ideology. Provide the people of Europe with the necessary insight, knowledge, and representation that is required to allow them to perform their civic duty.

Furthermore, I pray that Britain can carry on as a civilised country, one where disunity does not prevail. That is not to say that I pray against the independence of Scotland or Northern Ireland, but rather I pray that the British people are able to find a way to work together for the good of everyone, regardless of whether they become separate nation states or not. England and Wales, especially, need to consider very carefully about how they can halt the disenfranchisement of the working classes, and how it can represent them as citizens of a democracy. This means rejecting majority rule, but instead promoting the key concept of dialectical democracy.

Let me spell out this concept of a dialectical democracy more clearly. To what extent was the debate about the EU an open minded discussion? How many of the debates focused on honestly sifting through the facts and coming to a reasoned opinion? Or, how far did it represent a slagging match? Two sides shouting at each other, contradicting each other. How far did we feel confident that what we were being told were facts rather than opinions? A dialectical democracy rejects such crude debate in favour of cool-headed discussion, where opinions are allowed to be heard and, more importantly, challenged. It demands rational engagement with the discussion, and eventually, it demands that we come to a reasoned compromise, where valid points from each side of the debate are acknowledged, not denied or undermined with baseless counterclaims.

In my view, our press is a great culprit here. Of course, the tabloid press does its bit to stir up populist opinion, writing damning articles about the opposing side, whilst lauding its own position. This is not a dialectical institution. The tabloid press feeds populism because it feeds ignorance, and in a democratic society this is not acceptable.

However, the BBC too, as an example of a moderate, balanced broadcaster, has its faults. For, although it fosters debate between two sides of the argument, and tries to give them equal representation, and in this respect it promotes knowledge over ignorance, it does not promote dialectics. Too many times debators have to provide rushed answers without the ability to provide more in-depth justification of their assertions. Huge subjects are condensed into one-hour programmes, and as a consequence, these programmes resemble slagging matches, where debators assert without justifying, and where no real discussion or consideration of the claims is made. This is unacceptable too. In a healthy democracy, a free press should make it its primary duty to engage in a dialectical discussion, one where facts and figures are questioned, where people are allowed to change their minds without being considered weak.

Thus I believe our core focus now should be on fostering a healthy democracy. The economic problem is, of course, huge, but the long term issue is that of democracy in our country. Over the course of my life, the democratic functioning of the country has shifted towards populist rhetoric, brash assertions, and soundbites, where deeper discussion is seen as tiresome and unexciting. But the easy, loose populism of the present is dangerous to our society. If we have left Europe because of its democratic deficit, let us be clear that our own democracy is deficient, and that it would be a tragedy to have left on the pretence of the EU being anti-democratic if we're not willing to rectify our own democratic shortcomings.


Alexander Dodd is a computer scientist with a BA and MA in Philosophy, and MSc in Computer Science, with an interest in politics. 

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.

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