Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A majority isn't enough

One of last week’s posts talked about the problems of equating ‘democracy’ with simple ‘majority rule’, and argued that there has to be more to democracy than that, particularly in relation to securing and ensuring the rights and freedoms of all citizens.  Brexit has highlighted one aspect of the problem: whilst (according to the rules under which referendums are held) a majority of 50%+1 is considered sufficient to determine the question, making a major change on the basis of such a narrow majority – especially a change which has major implications for the lives of all citizens, including those opposed to it – leaves a country in a situation where 50%-1 of the population are potentially unhappy with the decision.  There’s a serious question to be asked about whether securing the narrowest of all margins in a public vote is really a good way of determining the ‘will of the people’; in the narrowest conceivable scenario, it’s really only the will of half the people.  There is a lesson here for independentistas as well.
Some have suggested that there should be a requirement for some sort of ‘super majority’, such as 60% support, before a change can be implemented following a referendum.  The main problem that I see with that approach is that it creates a built-in bias in favour of the status quo, even if the status quo enjoys only minority support.  As an example, if the two options on a ballot paper are a) remain part of the UK, and b) become independent, and if the electorate were to vote 40%+1:60%-1 in favour of independence, on what ‘democratic’ basis can the 40%+1 be declared ‘winners’?  Any rule other than 50%+1 means, effectively, that the ‘losing’ side can end up winning, which is as unsatisfactory to me as the idea that a simple majority can always impose its will on the minority.
I see the UK’s ‘winner takes all’ approach to elections as being a significant part of the problem.  In the case of the Brexit referendum, it meant that a party which secured only 36.9% of the vote in the 2015 election was rewarded with an absolute majority of seats in parliament, and then called a referendum (for which it was the only party to have campaigned) in order to placate the even smaller minority of anti-EU individuals amongst its members.  Had they been given only the 37% of seats which their vote earned them, then the referendum would never have been called and the subsequent shambles would have been avoided.  There is a very real sense in which a properly proportional electoral system creates a potential lock on reckless referendums, since it effectively requires a majority to vote for a party or parties supporting a referendum before one can be held.  In such a circumstance, a referendum is closer to being a confirmation of what people have already voted for rather than the prime method of taking the decision.
It does not, though, overcome my other reservation about a potential referendum on independence for Wales, a reservation which has grown considerably in the light of the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland and the 2016 EU referendum across the UK.  If a referendum posing a binary question between two propositions can only fairly be decided by a simple majority (for the reasons outlined above), then the narrower that majority the greater the extent to which the referendum exposes a split amongst the population.   (And ‘expose’ a division is all it does; contrary to what many have argued, the two referendums to which I referred did not create the difference of opinion).  Imposing such a major decision made by barely half the population on an unwilling minority (on whichever side it is found) is, as we have seen with Brexit, a deeply unattractive proposition. 
On some questions there is a possibility of a ‘middle way’ if those involved are willing to look for it (in the case of Brexit, for example, a closer relationship with the EU than the PM has been willing to countenance).  But sometimes there is no middle way.  Certainly, powers can be gradually transferred to Wales under a devolution model, but at some point, there is an inevitable binary question – does sovereignty lie with the crown in parliament or does it lie with the people of Wales?  ‘Devolution’ avoids that question (and can continue to ignore it as considerable additional powers are devolved), but the price of avoiding it is that devolution is always unilaterally reversible by Westminster; independence is not.
For independence to be the ‘will of the people’ therefore requires, in my view, more than winning a simple majority in a referendum; it requires that the people as a whole are ready and willing to accept it, even if it’s not their preferred option.  That has been a central problem with Brexit – the Brexiteers campaigned with the sole objective of winning the vote (by any means at all, as it turns out), and not with the aim of persuading people that it was a good (or at least reasonable) idea.  Even now, the Brexit ultras are clinging to the idea that the referendum vote gives them the absolute right to impose their view of what it meant on the population as a whole; they are still making little or no effort to persuade.  Majoritarianism is a deeply-rooted concept in a ‘winner-takes-all’ style democracy.
The lesson for independentistas is clear; our job is not simply to press for a referendum and then seek to win a majority by whatever means are available – it is to create the desire for independence and to persuade even those not willing to vote for it that it is a reasonable and acceptable way forward for Wales.  Most of the nations that have gained independence over the years did not do so as a result of a majority vote, they did so because it was the obvious and natural step for them to take.  We need to make it the obvious and natural step for Wales to take.
Too much of the independence movement in Wales is over-focussed on the electoral aspect rather than on developing that desire and creating the environment in which independence becomes entirely natural.  It is perhaps inevitable; the winner-tales-all approach is the familiar territory in which politics in Wales plays out – it’s just another of those instances where we need to start thinking differently before independence.  Insofar as the case is being made at all, it is often made on a ‘transactional’ basis, such as being a means of avoiding Tory austerity.  But building a general consensus around a willingness to accept responsibility for shaping our own futures is much more important – and difficult, of course – than merely calling for a referendum and then looking for a simple narrow majority in a one-off vote in a nation where that ground work hasn’t been done.  Calling for an independence referendum in the immediate future isn’t the same as a campaign to persuade people that independence is the best way forward for Wales.  Advancing Welsh democracy and achieving a consensus around independence requires more than applying traditional Westminster majoritarianism in Wales.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

A good post and the last paragraph – wise words indeed.
The problem with a monarchist system of government is that sovereignty does not rest with those that vote, so any outcome of any referendum can be debated and disputed on its validity, so it does not fit well into the system that currently governs and each time one is called a new act has to be created.
The only thing I can think of that by passes the machinery of government, is what is called the Petition to Crown and Parliament, which is a constitutional instrument and been in force for centuries, but is only limited to individual grievance. So, I think referendums should be avoided at all cost.
One of the complaints that the Remain camp states is that voters did not see the consequences of their actions (especially the great unwashed), that is true, but life is like that and life decisions are full of examples, like starting a new job or starting a family.
I believe it was Lincoln, the first Republican President of the USA stated that “if you stand with your back to a raging fire, you are going to have to sit on your blisters”, so in life, if a decision is made, you have to live with it and learn from the consequences and get on with your life.