Open Britain are running a petition demanding a “People’s Vote” on the final Brexit deal secured by the Government.
Unfortunately they’ve chosen to use the phrase “We The People” for their petition — a phrase that smacks strongly of populism and so-called “direct democracy”. Which is what got us into this mess in the first place.
“Direct democracy” — sometimes called “plebiscite”, from its Roman manifestation of “asking the plebeian class” — is an ancient concept, dating back at least as far as Ancient Athens, where every land-owning male was allowed to have a vote in the ruling council (universal suffrage didn’t come along for another few thousand years). And at face value it looks pretty good: after all, The People should be in charge, no? Anything less than that is tyranny, surely? Direct democracy must be the most pure form of democracy, and the best for any country — no?
Unfortunately, no, it’s not. It’s ‘pure’, yes, in the sense that everyone gets to have a say (at least those granted the franchise), but most of the spotty history of democratic systems has been about developing ways in which direct democracy can be improved on.
See, direct democracy very often brings disaster, and always, always invites it. Not because the people are stupid, or because they can’t be trusted (though I’m accused of both these beliefs whenever I argue online against plebiscite), but because the people are busy. They have lives to lead, jobs to attend to, families to look after. People, as a whole, don’t have time to research and inform themselves fully about every issue the country faces. Yet direct democracy asks the people to decide these issues. Inevitably, then, direct democracy determines policy by asking the populace for its instinctive, emotional opinion on issues, and not for its considered, informed assessment. And that means that direct democracy lacks any of the safeguards that later systems have developed to try to prevent tyrants and dictators exploiting that instinctive, emotional foundation of ‘purer’ democratic systems.
Gaius Julius Caesar was voted into absolute power because he appealed to the people, framed the established systems as corrupt, and presented himself as opposing the ‘elites’ of what we might now term ‘mainstream politics’. By manipulating this appeal (and threatening and murdering people who tried to resist him), Caesar secured enough influence to claim, and be given in very quick succession, enough offices, titles and special privileges to make him, in effect if not in name, the first Emperor of Rome.
Caesar was a dick.
Democracy is very rarely, if ever, brought down by a direct assault from outside. When it falls, it generally falls to exploitation and manipulation from within. Dictators emerge from revolutions, but also from the manipulation of public opinion in a state with insufficient safeguards in its democracy. Caesar took down the Roman Republic by using its democracy against itself. Ditto Napoleon. Ditto Hitler. Ditto many others. Each one exploited the emotions of the people and the failings of his state’s democratic system as a means to take power. And although Caesar was assassinated very soon after taking complete power, the die, if you’ll pardon the expression, was cast: his adopted son Octavian was at least as good a manipulator and schemer as Caesar himself, and he administered the final blow to the Republic.
Napoleon, Hitler and Octavian were dicks, too. Along with all those other dicks I didn’t name specifically.
Representative democracy evolved both to enable proper consideration and analysis of complex situations by professionals paid and given time and resources to do it, and to ensure that emotion wasn’t the determining factor in critical matters of state. In representative democracies the people of an area elect a representative who will be paid to give full-time, dedicated attention to learning about the issues at hand, discussing them with other representatives, and making considered decisions on the basis of the information available. Obviously the system doesn’t work perfectly — or even that well, sometimes — but the principle is sound. Given adequate, professional support from non-partisan data collectors, researchers and analysts — the much-maligned civil service — elected representatives have access to a range and depth of information that in theory should allow them to make informed and rational decisions, while taking into account the indicated preferences of their own constituents. In Britain this is called parliamentary democracy and is embodied in the House of Commons.
When direct democracy appears these days it’s generally in the form of a “referendum” – a one-off vote on an issue, which the governing body can use as a litmus test of public opinion. A ‘good’ referendum will provide that opinion to be used as part of a body of evidence which, in full, will inform parliament’s policy decision. Sometimes, though, a referendum is called which will form the sole basis of a policy decision. I make no secret of the fact that I distrust this kind of referendum, and have for a long time — certainly for longer than the last two years. Still, when these referendums crop up — votes which may bring a significant constitutional change — they are invariably safeguarded by the requirement for a supermajority: usually set at 65-75%, this is the proportion of the vote required in order for the change to be made.
I say invariably. Almost invariably. Because of course in June 2016, Britain’s Conservative Party, at the time led by Prime Minister David Cameron, chose to offer a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union — raising the possibility of a constitutional shift of enormous magnitude — on the basis of just a simple majority; and he promised to implement the result as policy. So, if just 50.1% of the people voted to Leave, the UK would be pulled out of the Union. But Cameron was quite confident this couldn’t possibly happen. The British people would vote Remain by a substantial margin, and he could put the vexed EU question to bed among his party members.
The propaganda forces gathered. Various campaigns for Leave started up, drawing funds including from illegal sources and to illegal amounts; illegally supporting each other with information; and publishing anti-foreigner propaganda and outright lies in order to con people into believing that leaving the EU would bring some benefit for the ordinary Brit-In-The-Street.
The Remain campaign went, “Erm, well, it’d probably be better if we stayed. Might be issues if we leave. Er. Vote Remain, yeah?” — and then fucked off down the pub, leaving Nigel Fucking Farage honking on the TV everywhere the British public looked for a year solid.
As it turned out, Leave took a slightly higher majority than 50.1%. Slightly. At just over 51%, it was very clear that the UK population was deeply divided on the issue: that there was no clear opinion either way. Which of course meant that making such massive changes to the UK’s economic and political status, especially without any significant research having been done into alternative arrangements, could not possibly have been justified.
Except there hadn’t been a supermajority requirement. 51-and-change % was enough to swing it. The die, again, was cast.
Had the Cameron administration been a responsible one, that would have been that: the supermajority wouldn’t have been reached, and the UK’s constitutional status would have remained unchanged — at least until the anti-European factions in Parliament managed to mount another attempt (another Vote Leave lie was that the June 2016 referendum was the last chance the UK would get to leave).
But David Cameron ran the referendum on a simple majority and lost. He’d promised he would implement the decision, and then he resigned within hours, leaving the poisoned chalice for his colleagues to argue over. Caesar might have been lying dead on the Senate floor, but the Republic wasn’t safe.
In his absence, the anti-Europe hardliners took charge: Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove took over the reins and, supported by fantastically rich business figures like James “Vacuum Cleaner Guy” Dyson and Tim “Wetherspoons” Martin, and by various fantastically rich media barons — notably Australian-American billionaire Rupert Murdoch, all of whom of course, obviously had the best interests of the British people as their very first concern, obviously, these shabby Octavian knock-offs set about reaffirming their intent to pull the UK out of the EU as soon as it could be legally arranged, quite possibly in an even more extreme way than even Cameron had envisaged (though that’s speculation on my part. I genuinely believe Julius Caesar would have had himself declared King of Rome — Octavian, later “Augustus” the pretentious bastard, was admittedly more subtle about his despotism). They charged forward, horns towards the china shop, claiming their way was the only way to “Respect The Will Of The People”.
This became the mantra of the increasingly strident nationalist press, with any dissenters in the supposedly still democratic UK being labelled ‘traitors’, ‘enemies of the people’, and various other accusations taken straight out of the Hitler-Stalin Playbook.
The suggestion, made repeatedly since the June 2016 referendum, that a second vote should be held to verify that this is what the people really want, has been fiercely resisted by Brexit advocates. The reason is obvious: even with all the dishonest tricks and dubious funding they employed in the run-up to the first vote, they only narrowly scraped their win. No-one could guarantee that they’d be so lucky again. Of course, it’s possible that they might be: if the people really, really didn’t want to be part of Europe, and really wanted us to leave no matter all the many consequences that have become clear to us since the 2016 vote, then they would vote Leave again.
But the people have now seen what Brexit actually entails, some (if not yet all) of the consequences it will bring, and the fact that, in reality, it offers no actual tangible benefits for the British people. So the Brexit hardliners are understandably afraid that this is, indeed, their last chance to force the hard Brexit they want: the hard Brexit that will free them from pesky EU rules and standards, that will force Britain to loosen corporate regulation in order to mitigate the enormous economic hit the country is about to take, and to escape the EU Tax Avoidance Directive, which comes into force Union-wide in 2019 — coincidentally (no, not really) the year Britain is due to leave.
So among others, Open Britain are running a campaign to force the government to allow a “People’s Vote” on the final deal: to ask the people whether or not they accept the terms on which we’re agreeing to leave. This they present as a demand for power to be delivered back to the people. As I said, this mess exploded when The People were asked a binary question on a vastly complex, detailed and nuanced mass of interlocking issues that even our full-time, dedicated representatives don’t have the time to understand properly. Should we Remain, or should we Leave? You don’t need data — just vote with your instinct. How do you feel about it all?
A hypothetical People’s Vote raises the same issues: most of us, even now, still don’t actually know much about what the EU does or how it works or how the UK interacts with it. Again, it’s not our fault: this is why we pay MPs and the civil service to act on our behalf and in our interests.
But we know a damn sight more now than we did on that rainy June day two years ago. If we can’t turn the whole thing over to the parliamentary democracy this country is supposed to be, then at the very least we can demand a confirmatory vote before we throw ourselves off the cliff. At the very least we can take the final decision out of the hands of Brexit zealots and give it back to a divided population with a little more information to hand.