It’s been a challenging few days for democracy. In the United Kingdom democracy has been something we’ve taken for granted. Despite the oddly persistent fact that we’re mere subjects of a flesh-and-blood sovereign, sovereignty, in practice, lies with us, the people. The UK is a democracy, and when there’s a General Election we delegate our collective sovereign power to our Members of Parliament, who debate and vote in Parliament. What they decide, our Sovereign signs into law. So far, so simple.
But of course it’s not simple at all. Sovereignty is limited in dozens of ways: by the unelected House of Lords for a start, by the European Parliament, by domestic and international law, by the media, by treaties with other nations and supranational bodies, by the United Nations, and by the interconnectedness of the world’s economies and ecologies.
The events of the last few days, unusually, have brought many of these issues into the limelight:
The Brexit Referendum has, at least partially, been about ‘taking control’, clawing back sovereignty from the EU. Though, as many of us predicted, the Leave camp are now discovering that control of our borders isn’t possible as long as we want access to the single market. Is that ‘control’?
And then there’s the Referendum itself. Is it actually a democratic process? A Referendum is technically ‘advisory’ in the United Kingdom, though tradition demands that the people’s ‘will’ be respected. That said, Referendums are so rare in the United Kingdom that they end up being mere travesties of democracy, at least if regarded as true reflections of the people’s will on a single issue. The Brexit choice was so complex, the ‘facts’ so unclear, the emotion so strong, that it’s hard to see the vote as reflecting a thoughtful view on a single issue, rather than expressing a more general dissatisfaction with the Government and the world.
We delegate complex issues to Parliament for a reason. Our MPs have the time, the knowledge and the experience to consider issues more narrowly. Perhaps if Referendums were more frequent (as in Switzerland) issues could be more coolly considered on their merits rather than, as last week, used as an opportunity for a splurge of misplaced emotion and hysteria.
And then there is democracy and party politics. The hideous wrangles in the Labour Party stem from differing views as to where power lies when it comes to determining policy and electing a party leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an old activist who sees the Party as the source of power, as the sovereign body when it comes to the exercise of power by elected Members of Parliament, though nearly all of his Parliamentary colleagues take a different view, and consider themselves as representing the wider body of Labour voters who elected them, and all their constituents whether they were Labour voters or not.
Democracy is difficult.
- Is the EU undemocratic? (Everyone seems to forget that we actually vote for our unknown MEPs. It’s just a rather large institution and even the loudest MEP will rarely be heard.)
- Should the leader of the Labour Party enjoy the support of the Members of Parliament that he leads? Or is it enough that he’s supported by tens of thousands of activists?
- Do Referendums really allow ‘the people’ to express their views on a single important issue?
There is no single form of democracy. There’s no right way of doing it. Its various forms may reflect tradition and culture in different countries and regions.
In the end there is only one really important test of democracy.
I am reminded of a dispute between two different schools of Logical Positivism in the mid-twentieth century. Alfred Ayer, an Oxford philosopher, put forward the idea that meaning derives from the means employed to verify a proposition (an idea curiously incapable of verification itself, but never mind that for now), whereas Karl Popper, a London philosopher, put forward the idea that a proposition makes sense only if it’s capable of falsification. So, for example, when it comes to science, a theory can only be accepted if criteria can be defined for disproving it. Freud and Marx fail as scientist on this analysis.
In fact it is always easier to disprove than prove, and something similar is true of democracy. It is very difficult to define it, and everyone has different ideas about what it means, but there’s a simple litmus test that looks at the same thing from the opposite direction: a country isn’t democratic if its Government can’t easily be replaced. We shouldn’t always be considering how the will of the people can be expressed. Rather we should concentrate on how the will of the people can be thwarted.