How effective is our democracy? How conscientious do you think your elected representatives are?
The question is not as strange as it perhaps may seem. Members of parliament have certainly been pondering their role this past week as they grappled with the decision as to whether or not to vote to trigger the negotiations for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Listening to the debates they seem to have been faced with one of four options. Should they:
- Follow their party’s whip?
- Vote according to the result of the referendum?
- Vote according to the wishes of their own constituents?
- Vote according to the dictates of their own “conscience” – i.e. according to their own convictions?
For some of us this dilemma seems ridiculous. After all the same members of parliament voted to have the referendum. They gave the British electorate a binary vote on whether they wanted to leave or not, and the majority chose to leave. It therefore seems obvious that option b) must prevail and they therefore have no choice but to go about implementing that decision. So why the angst?
Well, it seems abundantly clear now that:-
- No-one ever expected the vote to go the way it did.
- The whole subject is considerably more complicated than most people realised, and as a result:
- The question posed was inappropriately simple;
- There is now considerable second-guessing as to what the people really wanted.
- For a decision of this magnitude (and complexity?), something more than a simple majority should have been specified.
All of which indicates that parliament did not get it right the first time. Consequently they may well have good reason to be hesitating. But does this mean that they can now turn around and disregard the voters’ mandate? Option b) says that they cannot.
But, as well as being “government of the people by the people,” democracy is also “government for the people.” This carries the obligation to look out for the best interests of the people. Thus “government for the people” ought to carry a greater weight and create a greater moral obligation than the other two elements. Unfortunately this aspect of democracy – what you might call the leadership aspect – has never been emphasized enough.
On the contrary, we regard MPs as servants rather than leaders. This is understandable. We have the power to select them to, and remove them from, office so it is an enshrined principle that they are accountable to us. Most, if not all, MPs recognize this and claim they are “elected to serve.” Fair enough, but does that inevitably mean they are our servants? It demeans democracy to believe that. Yet that seems be the situation we have reached.
Now I am not saying that leaving the EU is the wrong option. For the reasons outlined, however, it is a decision that needs to be more carefully evaluated. Our MPs would therefore do better to show some leadership and do their best to make sure by:
- Stopping seeing departure from Europe as inevitable;
- Admitting the shortcoming of the referendum;
- Using the results of the referendum for bargaining for a more effective Europe
- Pushing for compromises and endeavouring to ensure Europe agrees to streamline its operations and eliminate its deficiencies, then returning to the voters for a better structured referendum
- Failing that, to then invoke Article 50 and start the process of leaving.
If parliament does not have the courage to do this, it should at least address the shortcomings in our democratic processes through a new, fit for purpose constitution that ensures we have the leadership capabilities built in, and that we never get into such a situation again. Either way it is incumbent on us to ensure we don’t.
I urge you, please, to get hold of my book, The Democracy Delusion: How to Restore True Democracy and Stop Being Duped, and promote discussion and debate around the solutions it offers so that action is taken to restore meaningful democracy and safeguard a better environment for future generations.