Despondent with the result of the vote on the 23rd of June in the UK, I flew to Italy where I spend my summer with my family. My Italian friends on first seeing me, smiled and teased: 'so you got the whole EU thing wrong didn't you?' (but with a lot more hand waving). I mostly just shake my head and ignore them, sitting in a sullen silence. Sensing that this is perhaps not the right way to discuss the issue they backtrack. Ah well, they say - in an attempt to be consoling I think - at least it was democratic, no? Silence turns to shock.
There are many things that can be said about the campaigning which surrounded the United Kingdom's (UK) vote on whether it should continue its membership of the European Union (EU). But it cannot be said of the result that it is "democratic".
If you think the result is democratic, I would challenge your meaning of democracy. There are many different types of democracy. A referendum is a form of plebiscite democracy - used, for example, in Ancient Athens. This is a form of "direct" democracy because every individual is involved in shaping the result (although in Ancient Athens the plebiscite was only constituted by males).
Today we do not live in a plebiscite democracy. We live in a representative democracy. Unlike Ancient Athens we do not vote on every decision. The electorate chooses who represents them, and trusts these individuals to inform themselves and make highly technical decision, on the electorate's behalf. This "indirect" - or representative - form of democracy is instinctively more attractive. For one very obvious and one rather less obvious reason.
First of all, it creates a group of people free to focus on issues which today are almost necessarily complex because of the highly interconnected world in which we live. It creates a group of experts. Where would the average person with a 9 - 5 job find the time to decide the wording on obscure pieces of housing legislation, for example?
Or take, for example, the impact of Brexit on passporting? The UK's membership of the EU benefitted the financial services industry through passporting. Passporting means that a firm authorised to offer certain financial products in any one area of the European Economic Area (EEA) can provide services in all of them. Without this passport (for example) investment banks must conform to other regulations in the target country in which they want to invest. This "double burden" (i.e. having to meet two sets of regulations - those at home and those abroad) is more expensive and means that the firms make less money.
Secondly, it guards against the tyranny of the majority. Pause to think about it and it will become clear that many of the things we denounce today have often had the seal of approval of the majority in history. Slavery, racism, and sexism were all condoned by majorities. We must recognise that 51% is no longer a magic number when it comes to decision making.
Indeed, many societies do recognise this. Many democracies have a theory of counter-majoritarianism. A decision taken by the majority will only be enforced as long as it does not trample over the rights of the minority.
System Reset: A Return to Democracy 1.0?
Despite the fact that the majority of MPs were in favour of remaining in the EU. Despite the fact that the majority of businesses were in favour of remaining the EU. Despite the fact that the majority of economists were in favour of remaining in the EU, the UK voted to leave meaning the experts were ignored.
In the words of Gove, "Britain has had enough of experts". The insinuation was that the people felt insulted on being told that their opinion was less valuable than someone else's, however much of an expert that other might be. This is possibly one of the most cynical twisting of a truth, by a British politician in the lead up to the EU referendum.
Because Gove was right. If you suggest that two people's opinions are not equal in worth, you are wrong. This view point is elitist and belongs to the kind of mentality that looks for differences rather than similarities between us. Such a view point rejects a rights-based conception of individuals being fundamentally equal. To suggest therefore, that the opinion of Joe Blogs is worth less than that of a leading EU-UK relations expert, is plain wrong.
But the problem is that opinion should have nothing to do with decision making. Say you are about to be subjected to open heart surgery. Your best friend is of the opinion that the surgeon should use a chainsaw to open your chest. Sure, he says, this might sound scary but think how cool it would be! The surgeon vehemently disagrees. Using a scalpel, he knows, would mean you are much less likely to die. There are statistics that show this.
Why should opinion have nothing to with decision making? Well, opinion can be formed by anything - by personal preferences, peculiarities, or prejudices. In the case above, it was based on what sounds most cool. Knowledge, meanwhile, true knowledge, is formed by fact.
Ignoring the facts led to the situation we are in now. Within hours of the vote for Brexit, Farage admitted that the £350 million figure was not accurate. Moreover, even after video evidence of Farage pledging the money to the NHS emerged, he noted that any money the UK did keep would not, in fact, necessarily go to the NHS. Hannan admitted that there would be no "radical decline" in immigration because the EU will only talk about a free trade deal (which almost all business want) if the UK talks about free movement of peoples. The pound has fallen and the UK's credit rating has been slashed.
Now, blindly following the consensus of the 51% - in this situation almost literally as the vote was won 51.9% to 48.1% - threatens the rights of the minority. That minority are the EU nationals living in the UK - who still have had no guarantee from the government that they will be able to continue their lives residing throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Irelands, despite the fact that they were not given a vote. People like my parents.
Let me be clear. A referendum made on the basis of public opinion inflamed by newspapers who have pursued stories which helped them sell copies, which ignored the opinion of experts and risks failing to recognise the fundamental rights of individuals is simply not good enough to achieve the title of "democracy" in the 21st century.
Why does this matter?
What is the consequence of calling the EU referendum undemocratic? Not much. Overruling the result would require an act of political courage which the Members of Parliament of the UK do not have. A second referendum on the same question would be tantamount to the same thing and therefore will not take place.
The best that those with a passion for the EU can hope for is a referendum on negotiations - asking the people which of various options they would prefer. But even this is extremely unlikely: the cost and uncertainty of the result is likely to be off putting for the government, not to mention the fact that this would make the new PM's prized Brexit department rather redundant. It is heartening that this position has been adopted by Labour leadership-contender Owen Smith.
Without this vote on the terms of the negotiation a certain irony. A vote which was in no small part the result of people being "fed up" with the expert's opinions has led to the experts now being in charge (behind the scenes) of negotiating Britain's future.
The importance of ensuring that we do not view Brexit as democratic, stems from the fact that the modern political system is under severe threat. The far right and the far odder (Trump) have plenty of opportunity to strike further blows to the world order that has given us more safety and more wealth than the human race has enjoyed at any point of its history, with the US, Germany and France - and possibly Italy - facing general elections in the next twelve months. Let's be a bit more loyal to what we believe in.Suggest a correction