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Democracy Requires MPs to Step Up to the Plate

10/07/2016 22:26 | Updated 10 July 2016

The very unusual circumstances around the EU referendum raise many questions about what we understand by "democracy". Literally, democracy means "rule of the people", and it normally refers to a system of government involving a process of electing representatives.

The fact is that democracy can and does take many forms. Today there seems to be a tendency to regard the process of voting as the sum-total of democracy. Certainly, voting is an important means of democratic participation. But so is petitioning. So is demonstrating. So is civil disobedience.

Democracy isn't something that just comes around every now and then, when politicians ask the people to put a cross on a ballot. It is constant, it is organic, and it requires dialogue and thoughtful consideration by elected leaders. It was never meant to be simply a first-past-the-post race where the winner takes all.

Referenda in particular can be an important tool in the exercise of democracy. But they are not a means for the government to relinquish responsibility, or to bypass an elected Parliament. Referenda should complement, not supplant - inform, not dictate - the normal democratic process.

The 19th C political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, in his seminal work, Democracy in America, warned against "democratic despotism", or the "tyranny of the majority", echoing a concept first expressed by Plato. John Stuart Mill similarly observed in his essay On Liberty that when society executes "wrong mandates instead of right (...), it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression." James Madison likewise believed that a democratic government must govern in the best interests of the whole population, observing in The Federalist that "it is of great importance (...) not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part."

In the wrong circumstances, majorities are more than capable of producing outcomes which are very bad for society - and there is no better example of this than the EU referendum.

Firstly because the Leave vote was rallied through lies and manipulation, as preposterous as they were thin.

Secondly because of the sheer complexity and significance of what is at stake, which stretches far beyond issues of immigration or even the economy, and which can hardly be done any justice by a simple in-or-out vote - particularly following months of spin.

Thirdly because it's now clear that many Leave voters didn't know what they were voting for, and many have since regretted their vote.

Fourthly because the result disproportionately and severely impacts on the prospects of young people - who voted strongly to remain - and those of younger generations. It is they who have the biggest stake in this, and they who will bear the biggest brunt.

Fifthly because if EU nationals in the UK had been allowed to vote, as Commonwealth nationals were, the result would have been very different.

And finally, because while this result might have pleased those who liked the idea of having a pop at the "establishment", however they chose to define it, the damage done to the country and the distress caused to at least 16 million people - to say nothing of the huge rise in hate crime - is real. No Leave voter would have been any worse off had the result gone the other way. But once the aftermath of this outcome has fully kicked in, no-one will be immune to its impact. Already money is being held back, or withdrawn, from projects which would not only create jobs and wealth but which in some cases help to prop up our increasingly bankrupt society - bankrupt thanks to the policies of our government, not "Brussels". And we haven't even left the EU yet.

To make matters worse, while the country is facing an arguably unprecedented political and economic crisis of its own making, our elected representatives have engaged in a collective exercise of passing the buck. The Tories are completely absorbed in their leadership contest, while Labour MPs seem more interested in their own version of "regime change" than holding the government to account for this almighty shambles. And no-one seems willing to question the idea that rightly or wrongly we have no choice now but to leave the EU.

One MP has been brave enough to challenge this groupthink, and he has received a death threat for it - a mere two weeks since another MP was murdered by a nationalist extremist.

What our politicians don't seem willing to recognise is that if we shrug our shoulders, assume democracy has run its course and allow our country to walk off a cliff, we will have done as much damage to the very notion of democracy as to the future of this country and the future of this continent.

If James Madison and John Stuart Mill were alive today, they would lambast our MPs for dereliction of duty.

Of course, the outcome of the referendum cannot, nor should it, simply be dismissed. There are many lessons to be drawn from it, and they must be learnt. If the strength of the Leave vote tells us anything, it is that our society is divided. There is growing inequality. There is increasing poverty and deprivation. There is deep disaffection with our party politics.

It's beholden on us now to properly get to grips with these problems, and confront the deeper divisions in our society which the referendum has so brutally exposed. Redressing this is going to take a lot of effort, goodwill and commitment, not just by government but by all of us in our communities.

But none of this will be achieved by sleepwalking out of one of the world's greatest success stories - on the contrary. The EU is but a smokescreen for the much more entrenched problems we face. And isolationism will only make these problems worse.

In a very real sense, this result was not really about the EU at all.

The Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war has laid bare the dangers of pursuing a reckless course of action against all sound advice and expert opinion, as well as against the wishes of the population. I was one of the vast numbers of people who marched against the war in 2003. Last week, many thousands of people again marched in London, this time against Brexit. When so many people feel strongly enough to make a statement this powerful, backed up by 4.1 million signatures on a petition, politicians are duty-bound to take heed, whatever the FCO says.

Democracy in this country was not built on a stiff upper lip. Our MPs are elected to consider, discuss, and take difficult decisions on behalf of all of us and in the best interests of the whole country.

They cannot, in good faith, acquiesce in something that they know in their hearts to be wrong for this country and contrary to the good of society.

It's time for MPs to stop the infighting, roll up their sleeves and step up to the plate.

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