Warning. Before you read further be aware that this blog post will state some dangerous and subversive views. If you are of a weak constitution or easily offended, I’d flip over to this site instead it’s got pictures of kittens. After all that’s what the internet is for, isn’t it?
I’ve kept pretty quiet about Brexit, in many ways I haven’t felt qualified to comment, I don’t understand it enough, and as others have noted, the debate before the referendum was far from informative.
The one post I did make prior to the vote was really just a testimony to the confusion and difficulty I was experiencing knowing how to vote. I’ve always been on the euro-sceptic side of the debate not I hasten to add for immigration reasons, immigration is a net benefit to the country, nor were my concerns over free trade with our continental neighbours. Again I believe tariff-free trade benefits all. But rather I have always found the ongoing push towards a goal of federalisation a problem in our EU relationship. This issue barely got a mention in the debate and that was far from helpful.
All that aside what I want to discuss here is the fall out from the referendum and the state of affairs we now find.
My problem, and this is where I start to get a bit controversial (the really offensive stuff is a bit later on), is that the referendum has fundamentally skewed the very nature of democracy in this country.
Despite recent events in Britain we have a representative democracy. This means we don’t directly elect our Prime Minister but that we elect regional representatives to stand up for our local communities in parliament.
Bernard Manin put it this way:
Representative democracy is often presented as the only form of democracy possible in mass societies. It arguably allows for efficient ruling by a sufficiently small number of people on behalf of the larger number. Representative democracy has been conceptually associated with and historically instantiated by the political system known as “representative government,” which was born in the 18th century with the French and American revolutions. It is a system in which people elect their lawmakers (representatives), who are then held accountable to them for their activity within government
A referendum however is a blunt tool much more akin to a direct democracy. Although it was legally a non-binding referendum the government at the time promised to follow through on the decision ‘of the people’. It was in effect a direct democracy action. “Whatever you decide we will do” Mr Cameron’s government was saying. In hindsight it’s easy to say this was a mistake, but the reality was it was a manifesto pledge and perhaps (given the vote turn out) one of the reasons the Conservatives so unexpectedly won a governable majority in the 2015 election.
So the referendum was in and of itself a difficult tool to justify in a representative democracy. I’m sure there are times when such a blunt tool is needed. However I’m not sure this was it. Particularly as the EU Referendum asked a simplistic question to a very complicated situation.
The question relied on an open, honest and detailed debate on what EU membership is, what it’s benefits and detriments are. What life might look like in reality if we chose to stay or leave the EU. Of course, as previously noted, this didn’t happen. Instead we got, from both sides of the debate, half-truths and out and out lies. The focus was almost obsessively on immigration and no one with the power to do so attempted to raise the debate in any way. Immediately the weakness of the question being posed was suddenly a stark reality. If the complex nature of EU Membership wasn’t being communicated what hope was there that any of us could fully understand the implications of a vote either way.
The referendum was ‘won’ by the leave side of the debate. Now in an election in a representative democracy a ‘win’ means that the policies of the winning side will be adopted and enacted. But in the case of this referendum there were no policies, no manifesto, and as both the Remain Campaign and Leave Campaign were made up of members of all the major parties there was no winning party to bring in the changes that were being voted on. Many people point to the leave campaign and ask ‘where was the plan for what leaving would look like’ but that misunderstands the referendum as being more like an election, in which parties are required to set out their stalls in advance. The referendum was much more a vote on vague concepts. It was a vote on a preference for one action over another, not a vote of one ideology over another.
OK now this is where I get offensive. Remember that link to the kittens? You might want it now.
In the face of all this the question we should be asking ourselves, is what do we think government is for?
Is it there to do our bidding as electors? Or is it there to act in the best interests of the nation and it’s citizens ?
In this country we’ve moved more and more to a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy, or at least the representative democracy that we have in place. We’ve come to believe that democracy means getting our own way. Social media campaigns that aschew decisions that are unpopular or different to our own personal ideology or core beliefs garner support with hashtags like #NotInMyName and similar. Now that’s all well and good, and in the free world we have the right to object and campaign against government decisions we dislike. However somewhere along the line an unspoken cultural understanding of democracy as the government’s requirement to do what we want has started to creep into our understanding of what those in power are charged to do.
Government is not here to do the bidding of the citizens.
Government’s primary purpose is not to do our will. Government’s role in society is to, based on it’s mandate from the electorate, to make decisions and enact policies that are best for nation and the life of it’s citizens.
Elections are our opportunity as a people to influence the country as a whole by voting for those local representatives that we believe will represent us best in the machine of government. Occasionally even referenda can be a useful tool for gauging the broad views of the elecorate on a particular issue. But it should never be about ‘the will of the people’ for the concept of the people having a single will is ludicrous.
In the particular example we are watching unfold before us, it was clear from the moment the result we as in, this was far from a decisive decision by ‘the people’. A 4% margin in any other sphere would not be considered conclusive. In a matter of national and international import such as the vote to leave the EU it absolutely cannot be taken to be indicative of the ‘will of the people’.
If government’s job is to do what’s best for the people of this nation, then it needs to have the courage to go against public opinion and act in the best interests of the nation as a whole. This is the job of government. It’s not there to be popular, it’s not there to make bad decisions because noisy people want it, it is there to do what is right and what is best for all. (Kittens, remember the kitten).
In the weeks and months since the Brexit vote it has become increasingly clear what many knew already. No matter how much reform is needed of the EU, Britain leaving now, in the midst of an increasingly dangerous world is a bad idea. Right-wing fundamentalism is on the rise in the West, a spirit of isolationism is blowing strong from our friends in the USA and the volatility of Middle East is more dangerous now than it has ever been.
What ever we think of Brussels and the is a LOT wrong with the EU, the economic uncertainty, the increased poverty are likely and the stability of the pacts, unions and agreements that have kept the world safer and more peaceful over the past 70 years is at stake.
The Government’s role in the face of all this should not be to do the mythical ‘will of the people’ but to do what is right and what is best for the people they serve.
I’m not suggesting that the Referendum results should be ignored, a deep disatisfaction and worry about the EU was laid bare in that vote. But our response should not be this Brexit or bust path we’re being committed to, the government’s response should be to a call for EU reform, use this result for the greater good of all the member states of the EU, by ensuring the EU is better, that the union is kept more to the original vision of good trade and agreements that ensure nations working together.
Government’s job is not to do the will of the people, it’s to do what is right, and in the best interest of who they serve.
Right. Back to those kittens.