Why Invoke Democracy Now?
People expect their vote to be honoured in a democracy. Our political consensus is based on the idea that votes in Referendums, General Elections and local elections are acted upon and followed through. If they are not, then we can’t say we live in a democracy but some other form of society.
The Referendum vote on 23 June 2016 on whether to leave the European Union is no different. All those who voted in the Referendum – 33.5m people – expect the result to be acted upon by the government. Remain voters if they’d won would have expected it. Leave voters, who won, expect it too. This means triggering Article 50 of The Lisbon Treaty, the official and legal notification that Britain will leave the EU in up to two years time.
Every day that passes without Article 50 being triggered is an insult to the democratic historic mandate the government has before it. This delay is unprecedented. Not acting on the vote is a rejection of the idea that a vote needs to be acted upon without hesitation. This creates the idea that the vote was somehow illegitimate and fuels calls for the vote to be re-run (in a Second Referendum) or re-considered by some other authority (such as parliament or the courts). Such a distain for the popular vote risks undermining the electorate’s belief that they can change things by voting. It can only foster disappointment and disillusionment in the democratic process.
Such a political culture and inaction creates an opportunity for the elites to redefine what the vote was for and what it means without our consent. This is why we need to get together and demand our democratic right to have our vote acted upon now. To call for this sets a clear precedent about what our democracy is about and what we want from Brexit – for us to tell our leaders what we want, not for the rulers to decide for us without asking us.
It’s not just our government that needs to be pressured to honour the vote. So, too, do the EU elites. In the past Referendum results in other European countries have not always been honoured by national governments and EU officials. For example, the majority “No” vote in Denmark in 1992 against the Maastricht Treaty resulted in the voters being made to vote again, which is what happened in Ireland when a majority voted “No” to the Nice Treaty in 2001, and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. When a majority in France and The Netherlands voted against the EU Constitution in 2005, the voters were simply ignored. The constitution simply had its title re-written and a slight re-arrangement of the content. The views of some EU bureaucrats in Brussels have been openly scathing of the democratic mandate of the people of Europe. In 2015, the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, said “There can be no democratic choice against the European Treaties.”
An anti-democratic approaches to the Referendum vote result need to be challenged. Whichever way you voted, without democratic values being upheld, we are just allowing appointed European Commission bureaucrats to dictate to us what they want to happen. And without making demands on the government, we are just allowing our elected leaders to be weak in the face of those bureaucrats or hide behind their diktats.
What is democracy in action? People voted. The result was to leave the EU. Article 50 should be triggered by our government so that negotiations can start to leave the EU. They haven’t done this. Now, if you believe the democratic process should be upheld, we can all campaign to support what a key value that we have in common and that unites us: democracy.
Should we trust the government to uphold the vote?
The government is no longer in political sync with the electorate. In the biggest electoral turnout ever, voters defied the Prime Minister who they had voted for in the 2015 General election, the leader of the main opposition party Labour, leading public figures and foreign leaders, much of the media and London metropolitan elite and academia, to vote Leave.
However the government is not led by Leave supporters. Alongside new Prime Minister Theresa May, the majority of the Cabinet is made up of Remain supporting ministers. Out of 20 Cabinet Ministers (excluding Baroness Evans), 14 voted Remain and 6 voted Leave.
The political Establishment is loath to defy the majority of voters by calling for a Second Referendum. Instead Government ministers are going down the road of attrition and speaking in Brexit language while delaying leaving the EU. The government’s official position is that “Brexit means Brexit,” as Theresa May announced on the first day of her premiership. They have announced that Article 50 will be triggered in January 2017 and exit from the EU will happen in 2019 after two years of negotiations.
However we should be under no illusion that if the government can find a way to maintain all or some of existing arrangements with the EU, they will. Without pressure from all of us, the government can do what they like. In a democracy it’s up to us to demand what we want them to do. Let’s get on with it!
What will Brexit mean for the UK?
Brexit means Britain will no longer be a member of the EU. Instead Britain’s governing institutions will be in charge of determining its laws and policies without being bound by those of the EU. And British people will be able to directly challenge our government leaders and parliamentary representatives without them deferring to EU laws and policies.
Why is this good for our democracy? The EU is made up of several institutions including the European Commission. One of the key problems from a democratic point of view is that the EC’s lawmakers are appointed by our governments. The Commissioners are civil servants and not elected directly by us.
Once we have left the EU our laws will be made by our MPs, our elected representatives. We can vote out our government and MPs if we don’t like what they are doing. Although we have civil servants in Britain, they play an advisory not a legislative role as they do in the EU.
Leaving the EU means we all have a chance to control our democracy without the EU’s anti-democratic bureaucracy getting in the way. This is an exciting time for democrats! Whatever our political differences, whichever country you live in, for those who support democracy as a progressive value where people determine society’s future by giving us all a say, democracy unites us.
What does democracy mean?
The demand to Invoke Democracy Now! is a call to arms, for people to stand up and defend democracy and to pressure the government to act on the will of the people expressed in a vote, and other forms of democratic expression.
Democracy means a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, normally with elected representatives. It can also mean the control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.
Democratic countries define their systems as “Government by the people” (Constitution, USA), an “indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic” (Constitution, France) and a multi-party system within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with “properly functioning institutions and the rule of law to protect people from all forms of discrimination and uphold their human rights – people having a say in the decisions that affect them through accountable, participative, representative and transparent political systems. (“Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015”, Government, Great Britain (5)). Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle believed democracy was “best attained when all personal alike share in government to the utmost.”
There are different types of systems that are democratic. Direct democracy means direct control by all the people, for example, by every individual being allowed to vote on a particular political decision. While General Elections and Referendums are a chance for the population to choose political parties and policies infrequently (once every 5 years or once every generation for example), direct democracy can be about much more frequent votes, on many more issues, all the time. Indirect or representative democracy means that people vote for elected representatives who then carry out law and political decision-making on their behalf.
In a Referendum the people are sovereign since they get a chance to vote directly for or against something. During a General Election people vote for their MPs directly and MPs then govern on their behalf in parliament and make laws. Parliament is sovereign in terms of law-making.
“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the USA, (1882 to 1945)
“It is never smart, even in a strong democracy, to declare some debate off limits. In a weakening democracy it is catastrophic.” Naomi Wolf, feminist, author.
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.” Emmeline Pankhurst, Suffragate campaigning for women’s right to vote. (1858 to 1928) Speaking to the court during her trial on 21 October 1908
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” H. L. Mencken (1880 to 1956) From ‘A little book in C Major’ published 1916
“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” Karl Marx, philosopher (1818 to 1883)
“In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately.” JS Mill, philosopher, author, campaigner for freedom, civil rights and women’s equality (1806 to 1873) From ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ published 1861
Are Referendums great for democracy?
Referendums – a direct vote on a political issue by the people – rarely happen in Britain. This country is primarily governed by our elected representatives voting in parliament. The Referendum is only the third referendum for the UK. The others were on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975 and adopting the Alternative vote system in parliamentary elections in 2011.
Following the Referendum vote on the EU, the idea of a referendum as democratically valid is being called in to question.
One argument is advanced by Professor AC Grayling, Master of New College of the Humanities, philosopher and author, who voted to remain in the EU. He sent a letter to all 650 British MPs urging Parliament not to honour the recent Referendum vote. Grayling’s main argument is that MPs (the majority of whom wanted to Remain) should exercise their “democratic remit and duty” to vote on whether to honour the vote. He sites other factors including that the referendum was “advisory only and non-binding” and that Brexit involves “complex constitutional issues” requiring “legal expertise” to settle. Ultimately he believes there is a “powerful case” that Brexit is “not in the UK’s interests.”
Politically and legally the Referendum on the EU was democratic. The context in which the vote was held was democratic. There was cross-party support by elected MPs in parliament for the Referendum. They supported a new law, the European Union Referendum Act (2015). Then 33.5m people put a cross on one of two choices on a ballot paper on 23 June 2016: Remain or Leave. The electoral turnout (72%) was the highest ever number in British electoral history. Voters of either side expected the vote to be honoured, not subject to approval by their MPs. If voters (and MPs) had wanted membership of the EU to be decided in parliament, nobody would have voted for the Act or in the Referendum vote. For MPs to overturn the people’s vote would be politically undemocratic since it would go against the expectations of voters.
Another argument against all referendums is advanced by Julian Baggini, philosopher and author. He argues that referendums do not uphold freedom or choice for the individual. Choice, he writes, “overstates our capacity for pure autonomy” because “choices were made too often in a state of relative ignorance and without understanding of the key issues.” In other words, Referendums on complex issues such as membership of the EU are not worth doing since we can never understand the key issues. Baggini adds that his position is not elitist since “this [lack of autonomy due to relative ignorance] applies to us all”.
This represents a dim view of people’s autonomy and their capacity to work out if they want to be governed by the EU or not. The Referendum was a clear, understandable, political, free choice about the deciding method of political choice people want over their lives: choosing between having unelected, appointed EU people telling you what policies you should have or, choosing a democratic system to think for yourself and elect people to represent and inact your choice in parliament. Quite simple really.
Another argument against all referendums is that they are used by fascists to avoid democracy. It’s true that 20th Century fascists used referendums, or plebisites as they were also known, alot.
Although both terms are used interchangeably, a “Plebiscite is a negative term referring to an unfair and unfree vote in an undemocratic political system. It was a favourite device of French Emperors Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon to endorse their charismatic leadership. Hitler and Mussolini held plebiscites in which rejection of the dictator’s proposal was unthinkable.” By contrast, a referendum is a “free, fair and competitive vote.” In Nazi Germany, for example, plebiscites such as the one on the Anschluss with Austria in 1938 were presented to voters who were threatened if they failed to vote or dared to vote no. The official record of the vote was a 99.7% “yes.” These conditions were not the case with the Referendum in Britain on 23 June 2016.
Another reason that referendums are opposed is that they are said to lead to passionate, majority mob rule, racism, ignoring elected representatives and experts using reason and knowledge to make decisions, go against, progressive, liberal ideas about democracy, immigration and civil rights, and ignore minority rights. In the EU Referendum, Leave voters have been labeled “racist”, “anti-Europe,” “stupid,” “misled,” “misinformed”, “populist”, Donald “Trumpers” and so on. What should we make of this?
Referendums can be democratic. It depends on the context. The outcome of the Referendum on the EU was a vote for democracy itself. It showed that the majority of people want the powers of their sovereign national parliament restored. Parliament needed a referendum because it had become suborned by Brussels, rendering it unable to reclaim our independence itself. While racial thinking needs to be challenged, opinion polls showed most people voted to leave the EU so that Britain could control its own policies.
Rather than outlaw referendums, it is actually worth asking whether we need more referendums rather than less or none? Direct democracy, where we would vote on a lot more issues than just the EU, would give people more direct control over how things are decided in our country. And if you don’t like the result of a referendum? Campaign for something you do agree with at the next one. On the other hand, having a referendum on lots of things every month, for instance, would undermine representative democracy which is a problem too.
Whatever you think about referendums, the British government – with cross-party support- promised to implement the result of the Referendum on the European Union.
Some, upset by the results of the Referendum vote, have found it difficult to sustain the argument against the idea that a majority vote should be honored. After all, if you don’t honour the vote then you have to be against honouring General Election and By-Election results too. And then, why should people bother voting at all? Instead of opposing the recent Referendum results, the idea that all Referendums are fundamentally undemocratic is argued.
Invoke Democracy Now! holds that the EU Referendum vote was democratic.
What is parliamentary sovereignty?
Parliamentary sovereignty is one of two aspects of political sovereignty; the other one is
national sovereignty. Parliamentary sovereignty refers to the House of Commons, comprised of elected MPs, as the centre of legislative power.
The House of Commons’ legitimacy comes from the recognition by citizens that parliament has the authority or right to make laws. Britain has a particular constitutional arrangement that keeps authoritarian powers in check. The evolution of our political institutions springs from the primacy of parliament.
Parliament’s key role is for our elected representatives to hold the government in account. It means that instead of relying on judges who we can’t vote out if they don’t hold the government in check in the way we want, we rely on our elected representatives to do that and we can vote them out if they’re not doing a good job. In the British system there is less of a focus on legally regulating every area of life and more on preserving freedoms unless there’s a good reason to control something through regulation.
With membership of the EU, British parliamentary sovereignty is challenged when the EU decides on laws that apply to Britain as a member state. Furthermore, within the EU, the European Commission is the only body in most fields of policy that can propose legislation. It is run by Commissioners who are appointed by each member state and not elected by the people. This is different to the House of Commons where people can elect their representatives who then decide legislation.
It’s true that voters can elect MEPs to the European Parliament. However the EP can rarely formulate laws. Instead it can amend legislation presented to it by the unelected Commissioners from the EC. So we can vote for a representative who has a technical job, and not vote for a Commissioner who has as a legislative job with regards political policy. Given that our government and elected representatives in Britain don’t always agree with what the EC appointees come up with, this has been a source of political tension for several decades.
Now Britain as voted to leave the EU, parliamentary sovereignty will be restored. And people can influence the direction of laws and policies directly.
What is national sovereignty?
National sovereignty is a government’s ability to decide its own policies instead of having to go along with the policies of other countries such as those of EU member states.
The future of the EU and national sovereignty is not something that is only a debate in Britain. Others across EU member states have advocated the advance of supranational integration by EU member states and others prefer a federal Europe, which would aim to make EU institutions more accountable to the electorate.
In the EU, Britain can “opt out” of certain EU decisions. However on 23 June 2016, British voters decides to vote in the Referendum to opt out of the EU altogether.
What is state sovereignty?
State sovereignty is the supreme, legitimate power of state institutions such as the police, the courts and the armed forces to define the extent and limits of powers to be exercised by other organisations in Britain, within British, physical, territorial boundaries.
In Britain, the Crown is the symbol of political authority, with the Queen inheriting the title of head of state. For the most part, legitimacy for the state rests on rational-legal agreed procedures such as laws passed by Parliament.