Tuesday 25 September 2018

The limits of democracy

The most often-used argument against a second vote on Brexit is that it would be a ‘betrayal of democracy’; the people have voted and have expressed a clear conclusion and that desire must now be respected and implemented.  One of the problems with that argument is that what people actually voted for isn’t entirely clear.  Amongst that majority for Brexit, there were many different strands and views about what the outcome should be.  In those circumstances, the politicians have little choice but to try and interpret what people wanted and act accordingly.
In essence, the government has interpreted it as being a vote to leave all the institutions of the EU and be free of all EU rules and regulations, whilst at the same time enjoying all the economic benefits of membership, and that has been the basis of its negotiating position.  The Labour Party’s position is essentially the same – what else does ‘exact same benefits’ without membership of the single market mean?  As an interpretation of what people were voting for, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, and it was effectively what many of those campaigning for Brexit said we could have.  They were lying, of course, but the fact that what they were offering was a lie doesn’t mean that people didn’t vote for it.
It isn’t an entirely impracticable solution either; as long as the EU27 are prepared to abandon some of the basic tenets of the single market to accommodate the UK’s wishes, a negotiated settlement along those lines is an entirely possible outcome.   Given their assumption that a solution which unpicks basic aspects of the single market and undermines the whole European project is as valid a basis for negotiation as any other, it’s almost understandable how shocked the UK Government is to find that the EU27 don’t take the same view and aren’t prepared to meet the UK halfway.
The point, though, is that demanding that the EU respect the decision of the UK and accede to the UK’s demands oversteps the bounds of what is democratically possible.  The UK government can interpret the referendum result as being binding on it and is probably right to do so (even though we were told it would not be), but its interpretation of the outcome cannot be binding on the other 27 member governments.  The people of the UK may have the right to determine what the UK wants, but they have no democratic right to determine what others will do, and there is no point in the UK government (and opposition) trying to pretend that they have.  Democracy has limits.
And that brings us back to the question about whether a further vote is or is not an affront to democracy.  If the Labour-Tory interpretation of what people voted for is correct (and it seems a reasonable interpretation to me), and if that outcome is simply unattainable, then where does that leave the democratic mandate?  People are wholly entitled to vote for a fantasy world in which the rest of the world gives us whatever we want (although there are serious questions to be asked about the competence of any government which actively facilitates a vote which leads to such a silly proposition in the first place), but when the government finds that it cannot deliver, what should it do next?  The answer coming from some quarters seems to be a demand that we all need to try harder to wish a compliant world into existence, but that just adds to the fantasy.
When a government is in a situation where it knows that what it thinks people voted for cannot ever be delivered, hiding behind the mantra that ‘the people have spoken’ is no solution at all.  Their choices are limited: they can deliver something completely different which they are pretty certain a majority would never have supported; they can tell people openly and honestly that what they asked for simply isn’t available and ignore the vote; or they can ask the people to think again and choose from the available options.  The first two look to me like bigger affronts to democracy than the third.  But the biggest affront of all to democracy is to pretend that the people can have whatever they want.  Unicorns cannot be magicked into existence by a referendum; government and opposition parties which both pretend that they can are doing more to undermine democracy than anyone calling for a vote to choose between realistic options.

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