Thursday, October 17, 2019

Undemocratic majorities

Saturday looms. We are heading for either the dénouement or another hiatus. The economic impact of the deal will be immensely damaging. If it is passed unamended then it will be rapidly hated by everyone. The politicians who let it happen will face ignominy, not only in their lifetime but in all future histories. The country is on the brink of committing an act of national folly that is mind-bending in its stupidity. There seems to be only one justification left, the referendum. It took a marginal right-wing obsession and placed it at the centre of our politics. And then Leave won – just. So now we are left with the cries of 'Democracy!' and 'Will of the people.' The process by which we arrived at a decision trumps the quality of the result. It's an obvious absurdity.

But the process was not democracy. A few are starting to challenge the process as well as the outcome based on a well-established principle, the tyranny of the majority. Majority rule is not necessarily democratic.

Critics are reviving the term, ochlocracy. It's been defined as majority rule, and compared with democracy, the rule of all the people. This isn't correct. Ochlocracy is mob rule. Fear of the irrational violence of the mob and its susceptibility to provocation by demagogues has always been with us. You can see it in the scaremongering about civil unrest if Brexit doesn't happen. Democracy limited rule to the demos – the people, but not all of them. The rule by the demos was wider than elite rule, but still limited. In ancient Greece it consisted of free men. Women and slaves were excluded. The democratic revival associated with liberalism, also limited the demos. For Locke, participation was restricted to the 'rational.' That became defined in various ways, mainly male property holders. The democratic struggle then became one for universal and female suffrage, in other words for a fully inclusive demos. As it did, it wrestled with another problem, the tyranny of the majority. Majorities are perfectly capable of doing extremely nasty things to minorities. A majority group can be a tyrannical as an elite one. The protection of minorities became an intrinsic feature of liberal democracy.

The solution that evolved was representative democracy. First, through the election of fully independent representatives, latterly through political parties, capable of coherent policies and aggregating large numbers of interests. Our democracy rests on a combination of the two. Party discipline holds the system together, while MPs still have the right – and the duty – to act as their conscience and perception of the national interest dictates, even if it contradicts their party.

The one thing that they are not bound to do is to follow the dictates of the electorate. They are not delegates. Power resides in Parliament. The role of the demos is limited to one of selecting representatives or parties. This is their only power. Outside elections, the people can wield influence, but cannot impose their will. All this is pretty basic British Constitution. I used to teach it at 'O' level to evening classes back in the early 80s. It was dull.

The problem is, we have thrown referendums into the system without thinking about how they fit in. They cut right across it. Brexiters are saying that MPs should act as the delegates of the 17.4 million Leave voters and nobody else. We are now in the curious situation of an advisory referendum being treated as not only binding, but permanently so. Given that a central principle of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament can bind its successors, this is bizarre.

But the majority voted leave, so leave we must. I keep hearing that mantra. My answer is, so what? Votes do not change reality and majorities can be oppressive. That isn't to deny a majority can be an important deciding factor. We can't give up the idea of majority rule entirely. It makes sense when the majority represents a much larger consensus on issues of great importance, or to decide who forms a government, or if the issue is relatively trivial. We have all been outvoted from time to time.

The problems arise when there is no real consensus and if the majority hurts a significant minority of people. And if you look at Brexit you can see both. The majority in the referendum was not a majority of the electorate, it was a plurality. 17.4 million may have voted leave, but 29 million did not. Current polling has shown a consistent lead for remain for the last eighteen months or so. There is no consensus for inflicting a revolutionary change, probably not even a majority. On top of that, two groups of people who were significantly affected were denied a vote. EU 27 citizens legally resident in the UK and British citizens living in the EU for over 15 years were not allowed to vote in a decision that could wreck their lives. Their interests were decided while they were excluded from the process. This is a classic tyranny of the majority.

There was something else though. Brexit is a simple project imposed on a complex nation state. As it stands, it is impossible for it not to harm significant minorities. What's more, those minorities form a majority amongst those directly affected and in certain key locations. Gibraltar voted by 96% to remain yet is being taken out of the by the votes of others. EU membership is vital to its economy and way of life. Northern Ireland voted to remain, the border areas overwhelmingly so, as membership blurred the national identities that had killed three thousand people in a civil conflict. Scotland had voted against independence on the promise that staying in the UK would secure their place in the EU. The Scots voted to remain. The most significant is the generation gap. Remain had a majority among those under 44. The under 25s voted 70% for Remain. Young voters coming of age now, who were too young to vote in 2016, favour Remain by over 80%. It's the vote of the older generations that swung it to Leave. The figures are so striking that the simple operation of demographics mean that in a few years Remain will not just be a majority, but an overwhelming consensus.

And this is why we have Parliamentary democracy. Representation allows all these sectional groups to be considered as part of the decision-making process rather than discounted and dismissed as a minority.

Referendums cannot do this, only representation can. The decision to try and decide as complex an issue as Brexit within a multi-nation state was a catastrophe. It has produced the mess we are in now. And even though Parliament has the final say, it is being pushed to a make a decision within a time-scale that prevents proper scrutiny and deliberation. Nevertheless, at least Parliament is ultimately in control.

All this is not to say that we are doing representative democracy well, we can do much better. Our real task is to find ways of improving and enhancing representation, instead of delivering power to demagogues through plebiscitary politics, while pretending that it is in any way democratic.

No comments: