Democracy is what I say it is

On one thing we can agree. We’re all in favour of democracy. That’s it. Better just to leave it there, because there may be little else we agree about. Still … I don’t want to short-change you with this blog.  

The New Devil’s Dictionary defines democracy as: ‘A system in which you and a person who just wrote an outrageously racist internet comment containing several grammatical errors are indistinguishable.’ Then there is Art Spander’s quip: ‘The great thing about democracy is that it gives every voter a chance to do something stupid.’ Many people seem to believe that, when a vote produces the outcome they want, it’s democratic; when it doesn’t, it isn’t.

If Tony Benn had got his way, we would have been traipsing off to nightly meetings in draughty halls, listening to rabid demagogues haranguing us on [fill in your preferred issue here] and then voting on an interminable series of resolutions. When all the votes on all the resolutions in all the draughty halls had been totted up, the result would have become government policy and the process would have been called democracy. The fact that only 0.1% of the population had attended the meetings would have been irrelevant.

Many in the Labour party currently believe that half a million members, most of them recent, have greater democratic weight than the representatives of more than nine million Labour voters at the last election.

The LibDems have argued for years that a system whereby a party gets 20% of the votes in a general election but only 5% (or whatever) of the seats is a travesty. It turns out that it is only a travesty when the party in question is the LibDems. When, as in 2015, it is UKIP, there is a strange silence on the topic.

It is true that, other than in exceptional circumstances, a British political party will need to get at least 20% of the vote to have a share in, or any influence on, the Government. One could argue that, if a party can’t persuade more than one in seven of the electorate to vote for it, it shouldn’t have any influence on the Government.

In America, which I was brought up to believe was the great beacon of democracy and the guarantor of freedom throughout the world, black voters were excluded from the register in southern states and were frequently lynched or beaten up if they tried to assert their rights. This continued well into the 1960s and has since been changed only with difficulty. In the land of the free, the black population of Mississippi were no more free than the citizens of a dictatorship. It didn’t stop America being regarded as a great democracy.

With all this in mind, what is one to make of the EU referendum? Was that a triumph for democracy or its abnegation? Much though I regret the outcome, I find that a difficult question to answer.

Membership of the EU has been a fundamental policy of all governments for 45 years. It is surely an issue on which the electorate is entitled to have a say. It is not a subject on which the country can keep changing its mind, but it has been 40 years since the last referendum, so it’s not unreasonable that there should now have been another. Membership of the EU has been an issue that cuts across party lines, but all three main parties have consistently supported it. General elections have therefore afforded no opportunity to express a contrary opinion without supporting a fringe party that one may not wish to vote for on other grounds. It is a clear, discrete issue. How else is there to be a democratic mandate for continued membership, if not through a referendum?

The main riposte to this is that membership of the EU is not a discrete issue, as is now all too apparent. The issue has tentacles that reach into every aspect of our national life, all of them inter-related. It is beyond the wit of most people, myself included, to assess all the ramifications, all the unintended consequences, that may flow from the decision to leave. Maybe there are issues that are too complicated for us all to decide, just as it is claimed that there are court cases that are too complicated for a jury to decide.

It is this problem that gave rise to the system of representative democracy. We, the people, elect someone to represent us at Westminster, to make informed decisions on our behalf. Those decisions have not always accorded with a populist majority, but they have been accepted. Until recently. There was no referendum in Britain until 1975. Now there have been eleven, and three major ones in the last five years. Yet, anecdotally, people seem to believe that the country is less democratic than it was.

Perhaps a representative democracy is only possible when there is a degree of deference in society and a degree of respect for the representatives. Those things exist no longer. And while that is partly the fault of the representatives for having sometimes betrayed our trust and respect, it is also our fault for deluding ourselves that we know better. That, in turn, is the product of the Age of Everyman, where any elite is to be distrusted, even if it has become an elite for good reason.

We do live in a world where you and I and a person who just wrote an outrageously racist comment on the internet are, if not indistinguishable, at least thought to be of comparable merit and validity. The filters of representation are being removed, leaving a deposit of high octane prejudice.

Those are the two arguments. I can agree with both. In principle, I support representative democracy but I believe that, whatever political miscalculation caused it to be held, this referendum was needed. It can hardly be right to complain about the lengths to which the EU has gone to frustrate a democratic mandate for its governance, as many of us (Remainers as well as Leavers) have been doing for years, and then seek to deny a popular vote in one’s own country.

What is done is done. We should try to be optimistic, however difficult it feels at present. Many good decisions have turned sour; there is no reason why a bad decision mightn’t come good. It is not unreasonable for a slim majority to say to the politicians ‘you sort out all the problems and implications; we just want out.’ Whether a slim majority (of those who voted) should be enough to bring about such a monumental reversal of a country’s direction of travel is something else for the definers of democracy to debate.

If we are troubled by the form of democracy we have, and whether it can be called democracy at all, we can always console ourselves with the words of Hilaire Belloc:

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke – and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne.)