Monday, August 27, 2018

Brexit and Democracy - A Reply to François Matarasso

Dear François

Thank you for taking the trouble to respond to my questions on Twitter in such depth and with such care.  We are, of course, in agreement on most of the key issues.  Like you, I am sure that the referendum was an appalling idea, and that the key to Parliamentary democracy is that complex questions have to be settled through complex processes of legislation - informed, nuanced processes - not reduced to a simple binary.  Like you, I find the persistence of the outmoded "First past the post" system absurd.  Like you, I am inclined to believe that the best chance of survival now is in the People's Vote campaign, although (like you) I do not feel that this second use of the referendum tool stands any chance of healing the wounds opened by the first, even if it does manage to halt the march over the cliff edge.  I would also be deeply concerned that such a Vote would confirm the creeping doctrine that a referendum is the highest form of democracy, trumping Parliamentary statute, rather than being subject to Parliamentary sovereignty.

Last week, my local MP wrote to her constituents about the People's Vote.  Her name is Joan Ryan, and she is a Labour MP, though significantly to the right of the current leader.  She asked us to return a form, in which we were asked to tick one of three boxes:
  • Yes, there should be a public vote on the final Brexit deal, just in case.
  • No, there shouldn't be a public vote and we should just get on with it, whether it's good or bad.
  • It's an interesting idea.  I'd like to know more about it.
"I'd like to know more about it."  Now, there's an argument for Parliamentary sovereignty rather than plebiscite if ever there was one....

Aside of the disingenuous language, this "voter consultation", or market research, is in effect a mini-referendum on a referendum.  It suggests to me that the root of this whole crisis is in the focus-group approach to democracy that was pioneered by Tony Blair: the idea that policy is just another consumer product, and that in order to "sell" it, you must first find out whether it appeals.  Cameron's appeal to "the people" as a ploy to outflank UKIP in the competition for "market share" was a logical continuation of this. But policy is not a consumer product, and representatives are not delegates.  Joan Ryan's attempt to muster some statistics on public opinion to back the People's Vote smacks of desperation - surely the democratic thing would be to argue in Parliament that such a vote is inherently desirable?

You say that the most compelling point I made on Twitter related to the illegal actions of the Leave campaign, but that "electoral law is quite often broken but that rarely leads to results being overturned".  That is true - but it isn't an argument against overturning the result in this case.  Only today, Tom Watson has called for a "Mueller-style investigation" into possible Russian interference in the referendum. Carole Cadwalladr's reporting on the manipulation of data by Leave has made it clear that this was a deeply anti-democratic campaign, indeed a corrupt and criminal campaign, and that it shared its principal actors with the Trump election campaign, which has this last week been proven criminal.  At the very least, this would seem to make a cast-iron case for the suspension of the Article 50 process pending a proper investigation into whether the basis on which Brexit is being conducted has any validity at all.

You referred to something you wrote in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result - and I find myself doing the same.  This dates from July 5th 2016, and I stand by it today.  The key points about democracy are towards the end of the piece.  In particular, I want to emphasise again the importance to democratic processes of considering significant minorities and their needs.  The Northern Irish dimension, which was completely ignored by both sides in the campaign, is now the biggest obstacle to a "deal" (another commercial term contaminating democratic political discourse).  Is it really "democratic" to force the province to lose the integration with the Republic that has brought peace to the island of Ireland, when the citizens of the province decisively voted against such a decision?

I agree with pretty much everything you say, François; but I can't go with you to the conclusion that "As a democrat, I have to accept Brexit, despite misgivings".  For me, as a democrat, I simply cannot accept it.

your friend

PS  I've matched your Fountains Abbey with Glastonbury.  Both casualties of a previous occasion when England decided to cut off ties from the continent.
"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

1 comment:

Michael Walling said...

By way of a PS to this post - this from Colin Kidd, reviewing David Runciman's HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS in the current issue of the LRB:

"Runciman warns us not to look for the familiar symbols of the coup d’état – tanks in the streets, generals seizing television and radio stations – as the heralds of the death of democracy. The transition is likely to be much less cartoonish, and consequently harder to detect or guard against. Indeed, the phenomenon he terms ‘zombie democracy’ might already be with us: an electorate is convinced that it is determining policy because it is asked to give its voice in referendums, not realising that the referendums are merely spectacles, carefully stage-managed by political elites who decide not only the questions, but also the meanings of the answers given. The people, Runciman argues, are easily gulled because referendums are ‘presented as the antithesis of the subversion of democracy’. The real result of the Brexit referendum was to ‘hand more control to the British executive, whose job became to deliver on what the British people wanted’. Brexit wasn’t in any straightforward sense a coup, but it points to the difficulty of distinguishing democratisation from its opposite."