‘Democracy’ and the ‘the people’ are terms which the Brexiteers have, since the outset of their campaign, associated with the vote to exit the European Union. However, despite having been framed by Boris Johnson as a chance to “stand up for democracy”, the Brexit process so far has undermined, rather than realised, the principles on which British democracy is based. In the final stages of Brexit, the task falls to parliament to reclaim and restore those concepts to their former gravitas and nuance.
According to the UK Parliament website, “[p]arliamentary sovereignty is the most important part of the UK constitution”. It is the role of Parliament to scrutinise, debate, legislate, and oversee budgets and financial matters, while MPs are elected by the UK public “to represent their interests and concerns”. However, in order to support a ‘hard’ interpretation of the Brexit vote as meaning complete extrication from the European Union and its cornerstone institutions, both government and certain media actors have instrumentalised and misapplied the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’ — with potentially corrosive effects on fundamental principles of UK governance. The Brexit red lines set out by the UK Government have been construed as an expression of the sacrosanct and democratic ‘will of the people’, closing them off from greater interrogation — and yet ‘the people’ thus defined consist of a mere 52% of the electorate which turned out on June 23, 2016. These red lines, which have been jealously defended, therefore realise the ‘concerns’ of just over half of the electorate, and the ‘interests’ of none. Direct democracy has essentially been accorded precedence over its representative counterpart.
The Importance of Being Earnest
The reinterpretation and moralisation of the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’ by both government and certain media actors have been key in enabling the government to defend and externally justify positions it has taken as a result of internal instability. While initially politically expedient, as the UK is a democracy with an uncodified constitution reliant upon convention and precedent, the consequences are potentially significant. Events during the June 12 Commons debate on a ‘meaningful’ parliamentary vote indicated a potential for a redemptive shift, however. While the amendment was ultimately not passed, over the course of the debate certain MPs re-asserted both the task of parliament and the duties and functions of MPs in the democratic process. The roles of compromise, investigation, and reflection in decision-making and the pursuit of consensus were championed. Philip Lee’s resignation underscored an MP’s duty to take decisions based on what s/he believes to be right and in the overall public interest. Ken Clarke pointed out that “the idea that the ‘yes’—‘no’ vote, ‘Leave’—‘Remain’ on the referendum day actually decided each and every issue that’s now going to arise is intellectually lazy”. Such words and actions defied and discredited the charge of Brexit ‘betrayal’, instead emphasising the requirement of MPs to adapt their positions in accordance with changing circumstances, moral conviction and the revelation of further information.
Act of Parliament
Since the Brexit vote, misapplications of the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’ have abetted an understanding of the Brexit vote as immutable, inviolable, and strictly delineated as ‘hard’. Those who have dared to argue have been declared ‘enemies of the people’, while the term ‘democracy’ has been associated with an unrealistic and unrepresentative interpretation of a single, binary vote. These terms have been dissociated from their prior understandings and usages — in the case of ‘the people’, as a heterogenous populace with varying needs, interests, and desires, while in the case of ‘democracy’, as an ongoing process requiring flexibility, inquisitiveness, and lateral thought. However, upcoming debates of the Trade Bill and the Customs Bill offer parliament opportunity for further input. As the nitty-gritty of Brexit becomes increasingly unavoidable, a consequential task falls to parliament: to deconstruct and reclaim the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’ from recent associations pertaining to them. It is of paramount importance for future public understanding and procedural precedent that parliament reasserts itself as a legitimate democratic actor — one which represents and acknowledges ‘the people’ and democratic processes, in all their nuance and heterogeneity.
This blogpost was initially published on the website of our Dublin-based sister think-tank Torc.