Defending the result = defending democracy?

The Referendum was held because an elected government proposed the Referendum Act 2015 which was voted unanimously by MPs to give the people the deciding voice as to whether or not the UK should remain a member of the EU. Some legal advisors and academics now claim that the Act gave the referendum an advisory status only – that it is not binding. It seems that the Act itself is inconclusive. 

However, the result of the referendum is not inconclusive. The majority, 52%, of the UK electorate voted to leave the EU. As Mr Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, warned in a recent debate in the House of Commons, allowing MPs to block the start of negotiations ‘could put Parliament in opposition to the people.’ He said, ‘The Government in its manifesto said it would respect the result of this referendum.’ He added: ‘It is for Parliament by all means to debate the conditions of departure, but it is not for Parliament to gainsay the view of the British people. Full stop.’

This is an important point. Putting Parliament in opposition to the people will severely undermine its legitimacy. MPs have a duty to listen to and respect the wishes of the people who voted for them. Many MPs who voted Remain are from constituencies which voted Leave. If those MPs vote to block the triggering of Article 50 they will effectively be using their elected status against those who elected them.

 In a representative democracy, parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in an electoral base. Parliament turning against the people implicitly undermines the foundations of its sovereignty and will lead to a constitutional crisis.  

 Whatever the legal niceties, a democracy depends on the people’s trust that their elected representatives will genuinely represent them. A parliamentary democracy means majority rule and, while they may be sympathetic to the views of the minority, MPs are responsible for respecting the wishes of the majority.

 Of 632 English, Scottish and Welsh constituencies, 401 voted to leave the EU.  In agreeing to hold the referendum, MPs gave the public a commitment to act on the majority decision. If they don’t want to accept this responsibility, they must step down. Anything else will just reinforce the public’s cynicism about Parliamentary democracy.

The Electoral Reform Society in willful disregard of us

A recent report published by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) titled ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’, describes itself as a contribution to a ‘national conversation on the role of referendums in British politics’. But in actual fact it’s just another criticism of how the referendum campaigns were run. Despite the ERS presenting itself as neutral for the purposes of the report, its palpable disquiet over the referendum result is clear.

The report details concerns about misleading statements made by campaigners, the lack of time for deliberation and the lack of authoritative independent information during the campaign. It even manages to have a sly dig at the over-65s’ supposed reliance on official Vote Leave sources of information.

The ERS is seemingly so upset by the result that it would like to see a ‘root and branch inquiry’ established to scrutinise the use of referendums in the UK. The inquiry would also be required to consider the ERS’s list of proposals, which range from being undemocratic to being outright Orwellian.

Among other suggestions, the ERS proposes: an official ‘rulebook for campaigners’; citizenship education to be extended in primary and secondary schools; voting rights from the age of 16, alongside a ‘key role for schools in voter registration’. It also proposes the creation of an official website with a ‘minimum data set containing the basic data relevant to the vote in one convenient place’. Furthermore, an ‘official body…should be empowered to intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns’.

To advocate the regulation of speech and political discourse in this way, backed by sanctions or otherwise, is a misguided and dangerous step. Punishing politicians for misrepresentation prevents the public from freely debating ideas and deciding for ourselves what is true and what is false.

The ERS wants to create a tyranny of official fact-checkers, deliberately aiming to dampen down public debate. If these proposals go through, the UK would be left with officially approved anodyne facts from the ‘minimum data set’ of some bureaucrat’s imagination, rather than having a robust political culture that allows for the clash of competing visions for the future.

The ERS is not in favour of democracy. Far from it – it has no faith in our ability as an electorate to determine the truth for ourselves. It believes that the public can only make the right decision when we have official guidance. Yes, the ERS champions the laudable aim of encouraging debate. But its bureaucratic suggestions seek to substitute the judgement of officials for that of the people.

The real democratic lessons of the referendum are lost on the ERS. It wilfully disregards the courage of the 17.4million people who ignored the bullying tactics of government, employers and even world leaders pressurising them to vote Remain. It also ignores the democratic spirit of those who voted Remain but who have since stood against multiple and ongoing attempts to overturn the result or frustrate it in practice. Real democracy is allowing the public free and open debate, not calling for a rerun if your side doesn’t win.

This article was originally published on spiked and was written by IDN steering committee member, David Axe.