Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Majoritarianism isn't enough

There are many Brexiteers who are claiming on a regular basis than any decision to cancel or delay Brexit would be some sort of affront to ‘democracy’, and that people will feel cheated if Brexit is in any way delayed or watered down.  Trump Junior has added his support to the idea that democracy is “all but dead” because the “will of the people” is being ignored.  He’s expressing a view which many of those who voted for Brexit share, and which is being expressed by many.  After all, the argument goes, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, and only 16.1 million voted to remain, so ‘democracy’ requires that we leave.  But is that true?  One of the things I learned from my studies many years ago is that there isn’t actually a single simple agreed definition of what ‘democracy’ means.  And one thing which is certain is that there’s a huge difference between ‘democracy’ and ‘majoritarianism’.
If asked to define the word ‘democracy’, I suspect that most people would come up with some variation on Lincoln’s statement about “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, and I wouldn’t disagree with that formulation.  I would point out, though, that it talks about “the people”, not “the majority of the people”, and there’s nothing in the famous phrase which requires that the vote of the majority should outweigh the interests of any minority.  The minority in any binary choice are still part of ‘the people’, and ‘government by the people for the people’ cannot simply exclude them as a result.  It may or may not (no-one is entirely sure) have been Benjamin Franklin who said that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.  It highlights the inherent problem in equating democracy and majoritarianism.  (It’s worth noting, though, that whoever did say it went on to add that “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote”, highlighting the need to protect minorities from the absolutism of majority rule.) 
I’m not particularly in favour of arming the lambs, but it neatly illustrates the point that there has to be more to a truly democratic process than simply following the will of the majority.  No matter how large the majority, the idea that they always have the absolute right to over-ride the interests, freedom and rights of those who disagree with them is contrary to the idea of all people having rights; and positing extreme examples of what majorities might vote for highlights the problem.  Just to give one simple example – if the majority of citizens in a unitary state such as the UK voted to outlaw all languages other than English, would the government be obliged by ‘democracy’ to implement such a decision?  It’s an unlikely scenario, of course; but it demonstrates that modern concepts of rights and democracy demand that there must be limits on the rights of a mathematical majority.  (The much more difficult question is about who decides where the limits lie, but I’ll leave that one to one side for today.)
Turning back to the matter in hand, one of the problems clouding the debate about Brexit has been the UK’s traditional approach to democracy, which is based very much on the absolute and untrammelled right of the majority, even when it isn’t really a ‘majority’ at all.  Individual MPs are elected on a plurality of votes (which usually means a minority of the electorate), and whichever party can put together a simple majority in one house of parliament then expects the absolute right to pass whatever laws it chooses.  It doesn’t matter that no recent government has received the votes of a majority (meaning that in every case since 1935 more people have voted against the party which ‘won’ the election than for it); under the UK system, a government once formed expects absolute power.  That winner-takes-all expectation helps the current PM to assume that she has a right to the support of parliament for any proposal which she places before it.
It is also that adherence to majoritarianism which leads people to expect that achieving a small but clear majority in a referendum means that the result is inviolable and absolute.  The winner takes all, and the losers must go away and stop complaining, even if the ‘democratic’ result costs them their jobs, their livelihoods and (in the event of some of the more extreme projections over medicines etc) potentially even their lives.  An alternative, rather more inclusive, approach to the democratic outcome would have been to note that the majority was small, to note than an enormous number of people wanted to remain in a close relationship with the EU, and to devise an approach to Brexit which tried to honour the letter (ending formal EU membership) of the vote whilst maintaining close links.  I believe that there would have been (and probably still is) a majority in parliament for such an approach, but the ‘winning side’ has deliberately chosen not to pursue it.  The extent to which a mindset based on traditional UK absolutism has shaped the PM’s approach is open to debate, but a state more interested to trying to govern ‘for (all) the people’ and taking a more inclusive approach to defining the ‘will of (all) the people’ would not have followed the same path.
One of the things that Brexit has highlighted is that the UK’s system of ‘democracy’ is badly broken and needs repair.  It’s more than simply adopting a proportional electoral system, to ensure that the elected parliament more accurately reflects public opinion.  It’s also about developing a better understanding of what we mean by ‘democracy’; what are the limits on the rights of the ‘majority’; and how the rights and interests of minorities are protected.  If anything, Brexit to date has displayed clearly how far away we are from building a form of democracy in which no-one would ever consider that the lambs need to be well-armed.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

Lincoln’s words about democracy should always be viewed by the debate the Founders had with Washington, who spoke of the “tyranny of the majority” and that is why they established a collage to elect the President and strong States rights.
Many ghastly countries have had the title of “Democratic” in their name, the USSR claimed to be democratic as they held elections (for one party) and that ticked the box for many “useful idiots” in the West to support them.
I recall attending the first Dimbleby lecture at the BBC, where Lord Hailsham gave a talk without a scrap of paper before him for an hour and a half on the question –“ Do we live in an elected dictatorship?, the short answer was -yes, but he claimed the system worked because it was manned by “chaps” who got their values from the playing fields of Eton and the Church of England and would “play the game and do the right thing”, in any crisis and this had been tested over and over.
All the debate about the referendum and what it meant, based on this definition, is that the process was given life by an Act of Parliament, which only 52 members voted against. This Act did not qualify what a majority was and so one extra vote would produce a settled view of the question. The question of what “out” meant, the chaps would be well aware that all good clubs in St James`s have the power to back-ball cads , but these chaps would also know the reality of the 1533 Act when England left a powerful European Empire ,where it`s stated that England will not be subject to any foreign influence or government on her ability to make laws.
The English Constitution; unwritten clearly demands an agreed set of values to underpin it, but the current players we have on the stage, are not made of the right stuff.