‘Take Back Control’, the oft-quoted, and occasionally parodied, slogan of the Vote Leave campaign, is as compelling as it is simple.
It doesn’t just appeal to national self-interest, in the way arguments over funding to the NHS and Eastern European immigration do. It speaks to higher principles of sovereignty and self-determination. In voting to recover full power over laws, Brexiteers can claim to be heirs to the democratic tradition.
Of course, there is another phrase which many would associate with the on-going campaign to finally make a break with the European Union: on 4 November 2016, The Daily Mail splashed the headline ‘Enemies of the People’ underneath photographs of three judges who had ruled that parliament needed to be consulted before the triggering of Article 50.
The Mail brought a considerable outcry, and a number of comparisons to fascist propaganda from 1930s Germany. If the latter response seems melodramatic, it shouldn’t be difficult to find the issue unsettling. ‘People’, with a capital letter, is, I find, a term hard to consider inclusive – illustrated by the fact it has ‘enemies’ from within ostensibly the same population.
The capitalisation indicates the change of meaning from a noun to a concept. No longer the broadly-speaking swatch of everyday folk, it becomes a mass of strangely like-minded souls. They are the ‘majority’, bizarrely stripped of the diversity expected amongst millions of individuals. And they want their demands fulfilled.
This does not sit well with a liberal democracy. The satisfaction of 51-99 per cent ought not to ignore the input of those that are left, be they 49 or merely 1 per cent. The rejection of this exemplifies the inherent democratic deficit of a dogma like populism, which I define as promoting the supposed views of an ill-defined ‘People’ against other ordinary folk who disagree, as well as against the established institutions of a democratic state.
In essence, what the Mail phrase implied is that one section of society should have complete control over the rest.
This is the opposite of what liberal democracy should create and maintain through its processes and institutions. The demos, naturally, ought to have a say in the political goings-on in a demo-cracy. In public debates, protests and, yes, elections, a range of views should be listened to, considered and some enacted. But, as with the balance of opinions amongst the population, so, too, should the balance between vox pop and institutions be respected.
Let’s not forget the other side to the argument for public participation – it makes sure the figures of government and the state itself does not exercise too much control. Elections help to hold the government, and parliament, accountable for its actions and maintains the boundaries of its power. And, in return, the slow wheel of government ensures that not one view, even if it is presented as majority, can ride ‘roughshod’ over those who disagree.
It is in this balance of powers that we find the true selling-point of the democratic system. Our political system is not, usually, run through referenda. We elect representatives who are tasked with working for their voters’ best interests, but ultimately remain free agents. Our courts listen to individual’s grievances and treat them equally through the rule of law. At many points in the process, our institutions balance our most vocal political wills.
This prevents one idea, or one leader, achieving an iron grip on power. A ‘minority’ view can find its strength through a court case like Gina Miller’s, for instance, or MPs, like those of the SNP. Far from subverting the ‘People’s’ ‘will’, our institutions actually offer people a bulwark against tidal waves of political majorities.
By no means are our institutions infallible or without problems. They must be able to work without interference – no switching between free votes or the whip on divisions, no personal targeting of judges. With reform or without, we must allow them to do their job of balancing political forces.
This is not to say that courts, civil servants or individual MPs should have more influence over the developments of government than the population-at-large do. But we must respect the role they play. The ‘will’ should not overcome the democratic system.
If control is to be ‘taken back’, then it needs to be shared out. Differences in opinion exist, and our society is in the best health when these disagreements are in the open. We don’t need slogans, but strong deliberative institutions willing to understand the nuances of government to the advantage of us all of the people.
Welcome to the Radix blog! Help us build the intellectual foundations for a new radical politics. Sign up to get email notifications about anything new in this blog. Read Nick Tyrone’s explosive new novel too, Pop Star Jihadi.
Stephen Gwynne says
Whilst I agree for the need for more deliberative democratic institutions, I don’t think your characterisation of British Constitutional Democracy is wholly accurate.
In reality there is no such thing as ‘the people’ in the constitution, only ‘the peoples’ which is similarly inscribed in International human rights agreements such as
All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
This plural use of the noun obviously does recognise that a nation’s population is made up of different groupings which may or may not be in agreement with one another.
Therefore whilst the Mail uses the singular to highlight how Treaty law, which in the past had been negotiated through the executive using Royal perogative powers, was now, in relation to EU treaties, being conferred to Parliament as a whole. Their exasperation was simply a reflection of the frustration felt as a result of unexpected constitutional changes. However, rather than respect and have dignity for those that you disagree with, you resort to ideological identity politics. I wonder why?
The British Constitution upholds the principle of majority rule and the checks and balances as you point out largely arise through the spectre of future general elections. So to somehow claim that the minority of remainers have somehow been disenfranchised is simply more #ProjectFear. This aggrandisement of remainer frustration is the main reason why our constitutional democracy is being strained to its limits as one majority (in Parliament) sees fit to oppose another preceeding majority (in the Peoples) whilst at the same time claiming to be protecting liberal democracy.
The constitutional fact of the matter is that majority decisions should be implemented rather than encourage, through aggrandisement, a rebellion by a later majority before the previous majority decision has been implemented. Hence why the Attorney General made the statement deeming the delivery of Brexit an article of faith.
The actual underlying problem as opposed to your assertions that a majority is fully entitled to apply the principle of infinite regression as a means to thwart the implementation of a previous majority decision is the fact that Remainers are in grief and fear. In turn, their fear and grief is seeking to undo the cause of their grief by deploying forms of majoritarian tyranny.
This may sound exaggerated but just imagine our society if the ever changing majority continously seeks to impede the implementation of the majority decisions preceeding it.
So yes, the majority, the Leavers, do have a responsibility to ensure that the changes that occur as a result of majority decisions do not cause needless harm, loss or damage, but the whole point of democracy is allow a society to be fluid enough and adaptable enough to preserve its democratic constitution. This therefore puts the emphasis on remainers being honest and helping to deliver a Brexit that works for everyone as well as enact the majority decision. So far, most remainers have done little else put seek to impose their minority decision on everyone else. This does not reflect the majority wishes of the Peoples of Britain when they cast their democratic vote. However, rather than accept the result and work together to deliver an inclusive deal, Remainers have fought, rebelled, distorted and obfuscated using every logical fallacy in the book.
You are the minority, not the majority. If you want the majority to respect you and your concerns, then you must respect the majority and their concerns, rather than deny them, demean them or simply avoid them.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Good article and good reply.
I agree with Stephen that too many Remainers have failed to accept the result of the referendum. I still get emails along the lines of I think the UK is better off in and therefore we should do our damndest to reverse the result. This, in my view, is wholly unreasonable. It’s as though the referendum never happened or should be considered meaningless.
Conversely, at no time did the government acknowledge that nearly half of those who voted wanted to remain. By privileging one wing of her party over a large minority of voters and adopting an extreme Brexit rhetoric, the PM never attempted to create a situation that might appeal to the large swathe of moderate leavers and moderate Remainers.
Inevitably we now have polarization and a debate dominated by both extremes.
Trying to find a compromise now after spending three years essentially dividing the country further will not heal the wounds.
Zoe suggests that government should rule in the interests of all. That should indeed be the aim. But in practice it’s impossible ever to satisfy everybody. Any policy creates those who agree and maybe benefit, and those who disagree and maybe lose. Keeping everyone happy all the time if a fool’s errand.
But government should at least be seen to be fair, reasonable and considerate of all opinion. Never in the Brexit saga did the government do that in a country that was clearly split down the middle.
Zoë Hodge says
I apologise for the late reply – I’m afraid I’ve been feeling a little under the weather.
I find your characterisation of the British Constitution very helpful and your feelings on the on-going Brexit debate quite understandable. Just to clarify, my intention wasn’t to focus on Brexit, but to start a re-consideration of our democratic constitution in a broader scope. What I found attention-worthy about the Daily Mail headline was the lack of respect for the country’s institutions – and I wondered if we should reassess the role of these institutions more generally.
Could I trouble you to clarify a couple of points? Did the Daily Mail, in your understanding, take issue with the constitution being changed in itself, or with the way in which it was changed? Further, the message I took from the article was that the Supreme Court was irrelevant. This was just my interpretation and a jumping-off point to explore non-political matters of the democratic system (however poorly) – can I ask how you found ‘ideological identity politics’ in that and why you are not surprised about it?
My essential point was that majorities are incredibly rare. Not everyone on the remain or leave sides, let alone people within the same political party, agree. To discuss Brexit, for instance – we don’t, as yet, have a clear majority on how Brexit should proceed, at least in Parliament. Maybe a multiple-choice referendum would find a majority amongst the peoples? I’m not sure, either. Let me be clear: I fully recognise the complete variety of opinions within any given society. I simply wish for the best way to work with all of them.
Peter Arnold says
The problem is, we don’t live in a democratic society.
Democracy is far more than elections. Elections are are an important part of a democracy, but they are not the whole picture.
A truly democratic society has democratic systems operating at all levels of that society. So, for example, our education system is based on autocracy – decisions are made by a few powerful people at the top of the organisational hierarchy, and those at the receiving end have few, if any powers to change things. The same is true of business, the welfare system, local and national government. In all of these organisations, those of us at the receiving end have almost no power to change the organisation, and basically, if we don’t like what is being done or given to us, we either have to lump it or do without. That is not democracy in action, in organisation, or in fact.
The operating system is not based on debate, discussion, or the possibility of change; its operational system is bureaucratic, and only makes changes when forced to do so by external events.
In a truly democratic society, citizens have the power to initiate change. Power exercised by bureaucrats, as in most developed nations, is usually ineffective in shaping that society because it follows events instead of being at the forefront of change. The maintenance of the status quo is the art of the bureaucrat, whereas, for the democratic citizen, the status quo exists to be be challenged and changed to reflect the needs and aspirations of people.
It is at this point that political campaigning to achieve change becomes relevant and important. In theory, in democratic societies, political activity should lead to change, but in practice this is the exception rather than the rule. In the UK, for example, the electoral system is designed to prevent fundamental change because the First Past The Post system of elections is designed to maintain the status quo as designed by the dominant political parties or groups.
It must be remembered that the UK’s constitutional system is basically designed for the maintenance of the powers that be that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the rich and privileged. It was slightly modified in the nineteenth century, but it is still an archaic system that no longer meets the needs of the nation. Our system of government is still dominated by the rich and privileged, with a leavening of middle class and middle aged white men to make it appear representative of the people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Women and ethnic minority citizens are under-represented in parliament, as are millions of people with physical and mental disabilities.
It really is time that we had a modern parliament for a modern society, and a fairer system of elections, based on proportional representation at every level of government is the basic building block towards a more democratic system of government which will, in its turn, make it possible to create a truly democratic society.
Zoë Hodge says
Interesting comment, Peter. I like how radically you think – if one feels the system is broken, perhaps we should redesign from scratch. A new holistic approach. Food for thought.