Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Back to basics

Democracy is such a nice word, and that's the problem. When I started teaching politics in evening classes around thirty-five years ago, this was my first warning to 'A' and 'O' level students. Beware nice words that are not clearly defined. I used to use an example of a speech where a leading politician used four different, and contradictory, definitions of the word 'democracy' in only three sentences. This is very, very basic political theory. Yet it seems to evade the minds of politicians, journalists, commentators, and partisans, all of whom tend to define democracy as the system that enables them to win. How else can you explain Brexiters' argument that the 2016 referendum was an exercise in democracy and that another referendum in 2019 would be a betrayal of democracy? It's ludicrous.

In fact, referendums are only democratic in the crudest of senses. They make decisions on a predetermined issue, solely on the basis of a majority of votes, without any regard to the interests or opinions of the minority, however large, or of those who are directly affected but not enfranchised.

Here's another concept for beginners from those early classes. The British constitution is usually described as unwritten, but is better defined as uncodified. This makes it flexible, to the point of being haphazard. Referendums are not formally part of our constitution for the simple reason that they undermine the processes of representative democracy. Yet they have crept in as a practice for political convenience. But because the principle and purposes of referendums haven't been defined, we have no rules about the issues on which they can be called, their construction and timing, the extent of the mandate they confer, the principles of the franchise on which they are held, or the majorities required for an authoritative decision. The result is that we have had a number of referendums all fought on different ad hoc rules.

We are now facing a revolutionary constitutional and economic change - and yes this is a revolution - brought about by a flimsy majority of votes from a minority of the electorate in one of the worst constructed and managed referendums imaginable. There was even no clarity as to whether the referendum result was binding or not! And that is before we get into the issue of the criminal abuse of funding and the possibly corrupt misuse of data.

There were other constitutional anomalies as well that the referendum neither recognised nor had any mechanism for dealing with. Britain is made up of constituent nations, each with devolved governments and different political traditions. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted decisively to remain in the EU. Where do they stand now? In addition, Northern Ireland's constitution had been redefined by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Belfast Agreement that ended a thirty-year civil war and had given another EU state, the Republic of Ireland, a constitutional role in its governance. The referendum allowed Scottish and Northern Irish opinion to be overruled by English votes. There was no safeguard for Gibraltar either, which voted 96% in favour of remain.

This neglect of constitutional and democratic basics struck me when I read a Rafael Behr article from last month. He made three very good points.

Most British citizens went about their lives unbothered by the European Union. Brussels was an object of compulsive loathing for only a tiny number. Their good fortune was to find in David Cameron a malleable prime minister who could be pressed into calling a referendum on a question few voters had ever thought to ask themselves. The cranks got their hobby horse into the political Grand National – and, credit where it’s due, they won.
Withdrawal from the EU was only the concern of a small minority, predominantly on the fringes of the right with a few nationalist leftists in tow. They only managed to get their referendum by being such a bloody nuisance in the Conservative Party that Cameron decided that the best way to shut them up was to give them their heart's desire. Taking the path of least resistance is one of the most frequently made political mistakes - that and fatalism.

If you want to see where the referendum came from, look back to 1997 and the short-lived Referendum Party of James Goldsmith. It was a single issue party campaigning for a referendum on EU membership. It won 2.6% of the votes in the general election of that year. The reason why it focused on calling for a referendum was because the constitutional processes of representative democracy would never have produced a decision to leave the EU. It could only be done if they found a way to by-pass formal democratic politics. In this sense, the referendum was anti-democratic.

Secondly, Behr mentioned some focus group research:
Many recall the 2016 campaign as a time of anxiety, even trauma. They resented being forced to choose between options they felt ill-equipped to evaluate, and are in no hurry to relive the experience. 
Just as there was little demand for a referendum, so there was not much conviction about the vote. Though people are always reluctant to admit error, the fear of widespread disorder if Brexit doesn't happen is based on the assumptions of a committed minority that their obsessions are widely shared (this is a common cognitive bias - the false consensus effect). Outside that minority, the referendum itself was the only thing that made people think that it might be a good idea to leave. Why call one at all otherwise? After all, the leave campaign kept saying that there was no trade offs, no downsides, that we would be better off, and that it would be a cost-free choice.

Even so, the reality is that the referendum showed no consensus at all. The vote was close to being 50/50. As well as the divisions between the UK's nations, it's the generational one that is startling - and potentially highly significant. Young people are overwhelmingly pro-EU and around 70% voted to remain. Brexit was the choice of the old. The evidence is that this demographic divide is growing wider. The ethnic division was pretty stark too. The attempt, particularly by the left, to portray Brexit as a working class vote is only partially sustainable if you redefine the working class as solely white. Even then the generational differences are striking. Geography and demography divide us. The purpose of democracy is to recognise, represent, and manage these divisions, not to deny them by burying them under a crude concept of majority rule.

Finally, Behr reckons that while people like me obsess, the electorate aren't listening.
It is possible that all of the ideological and technical squabbling, the factional bickering that has consumed politics since the referendum, will turn out to have been only the preamble. And what it will all come down to in the end is a contest between two gut propositions that have very little to do with the EU. For leave: just get on with it. For remain: please just make it stop.
And I have bad news for both remainers and leavers. It isn't going to stop. If we leave, we face either the catastrophe of no deal, or difficult decades of arguments and adjustments to whichever new status as a third country our government chooses for us as we sort out our future as a poorer, more isolated nation. If we manage to avert disaster and remain, then we will have a decade to undo the damage that has already happened; to recover from the disinvestment - most notably in pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and financial services, the collapse in investment since the referendum, the lower growth, and the wrecking of our international reputation and prestige as other nations shake their heads at our collective nervous breakdown, while wondering about the UK as a secure place to do business.

Given the pusillanimity of the current crop of politicians - the ideologically blinded leading the  unprincipled cowards - I see little way out other than a second referendum. It is just as an obnoxious option as the first, with an equally uncertain result. Of course, if we do leave, the campaign to rejoin will begin. Necessity will probably bring an end to this wasteful and destructive episode as we try and get back. It may also be a chance to think about those basic principles of democratic governance that we carelessly disregarded and make sure that we are never hijacked by political adventurers and charlatans in the future.

And if we do apply to rejoin and are accepted back, please let's not hold a referendum.


SP said...

Sadly too complicated an argument for your average public schooled, Ox/Bridge or otherwise Uni graduate politician in comparison to your O and A level students

The Plump said...

PPE - so much to answer for.