There’s been a lot of talk about the nature of democracy of late in Britain. It has been shaped by the idea that to oppose the referendum result is inherently undemocratic – it’s the will of the people, goddamnit, is heard a lot now, particularly from the Conservative side of the House. What it has made me consider is the nature of the British form of democracy and how it actually functions; as well as how the EU referendum was essentially a perversion of it that has led us all into a place where the entire unwritten constitution is in its greatest crisis perhaps since the Restoration.
Consider for a moment referenda of the past. The 1975 one on Europe was based around the idea that Britain had been taken into the EEC by the government of the time and the referendum was simply about ratifying that agreement. The Wilson Labour government ran the referendum on the basis of wanting to rubber stamp a recent change and if a No vote had occurred, reversing such a trajectory would have still been somewhat reasonably painlessly possible. Next comes the AV referendum. This was strange as you had a coalition government that was split down the middle on what result was desired. But ether way, we were constitutionally covered: if the Lib Dems got AV via the referendum, the Lib Dems would have had to vote for the boundary changes. It was all tied together as a piece (even though the Tories complained about it at the time, the Lib Dems actually gave the Tories an out in the whole Lords debacle that they refused to take). The Scottish 2014 referendum saw a nationalist party whose whole raison d’etre is Scottish independence, who had recently gained a majority and thus were in a place to enact their historic mission. Making Scotland an independent country off the back of that mandate was a step too far (even the SNP would agree on that), so we had a referendum. Lose (as happened) and the SNP has to accept that Scotland wants an SNP government but not be an independent country, at least for the time being; win and it ratifies the government’s position.
That brings us to the central problem with the EU referendum. It was done unwillingly by the then Tory prime minister, not as a way of ratifying something he wanted to do but for the exact opposite reason: he wanted the referendum to reject once and for all something he never wanted to do in the first place. As a result, when the vote went the opposite way to the one he desired, he departed as prime minister – and it has been left to those who have picked up the pieces in his wake to interpret the referendum result as best they can. The fact that it has come to this, where Brexiteers are trying to bypass the parliament they so desperately wanted to make supreme, is inevitable in retrospect.
Britain is a representative democracy. We should only have referenda as a way of the government of the time asking to do something it feels supersedes its mandate as a government and needs ratifying directly from the people. It should never be used, as has been done in the EU referendum, as an attempt to reject something the government of the day does not want to do. That way lies anarchy – a new government, trying to interpret the motives of the electorate, not based on a manifesto that has been voted on but rather what a simple yes or no question might mean for the future of the entire country, the old government having had no plan to implement the implications of the referendum vote since it never planned on the result going the way it did.
I think one of the questions of our age is: do you want to live in a representative democracy or a direct democracy? I have no doubt whatsoever which one I prefer.