The Real Democratic Challenge

Published on September 06, 2017

We are repeatedly told that the 2016 referendum means that Parliament has no choice but to “deliver Brexit”. Failure to do so would be “undemocratic”, and would demonstrate that Parliament “holds the voters in contempt”.  It is high time to expose this nonsense.

Leave aside for a moment the question of what voters thought they were voting for although, as Philip Hammond has argued, it seems unlikely they were voting to make themselves poorer.

Leave aside also the question of why it was legitimate for opponents of the European Union to argue their case following the 1975 referendum, but it is now illegitimate for their opponents to maintain their arguments following the 2016 referendum.

The real reason why repeated attempts to silence the argument against Brexit are so dangerous is that by claiming democratic authority for their position the Brexiteer faction – for that is what they remain – demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the nature of democracy itself.

They reduce a democratic culture to the status of a transaction. The voters are asked a question; they provide an answer; go, do. 

No democrat should entertain this diminished understanding of democracy for a single moment. Real life is lived in real time. Circumstances change; reality changes; opinions change.

Democracy is the means by which the ministers who make these decisions are subject to constant challenge, and required to provide day by day explanation and justification for the actions they take in our name.

It is hard to imagine a more important time for a vigorous and challenging democratic debate.

For most of the post war period the majority of voters, and a larger majority of political and other leaders, regarded it as obvious that Britain’s interests lie in developing closer links with our neighbours in Europe with whom we share common bonds of history, geography and culture.

For all its faults, the European Union has been the means by which we have pursued these interests and it has been an essential part of our governance.

There are irritants of course. Like all organizations the EU is capable of saying and doing silly things, and it is sometimes slow to recognize the blindingly obvious. It regularly presents easy targets for populist politicians and journalists.

But that hardly makes it different. The NHS is frequently likened to a “national religion”, and the values it represents secure virtually unanimous support in Britain, but any news editor will confirm that even so widely supported an organization as the NHS provides a ready source of easy stories about bureaucratic tin ears.

The real scandal of current British politics is not the fact that the EU is no more perfect than any other human organization; it is the unwillingness of Parliamentarians of all political colours to provide effective democratic challenge to a government which is prejudicing these relationships and institutions – which were regarded as vital national interests until a few short months ago.

Far from improving the accountability of decision makers to voters the effect of the EU referendum has been to provide ministers with a shield which prevents their decisions being questioned.

For nearly half a century, successive British governments of all political complexions have believed that it is in our essential national interests to be part of the process which makes the decisions which shape our continent. 

Those decisions have never been purely economic. Is it a matter of economics or food safety to decide whether we eat chlorine soaked chicken? Is it a matter of economics or environmental concern to decide whether we drive diesel cars? The answer is both cases is “both”. They are important because they shape the food we eat and the air we breathe and they are also important because they shape the market in which our businesses trade.

The democratic question is who makes the decisions and how are they accountable?

The EU answer is that the Single Market, supported by the Customs Union, has allowed us to make these decisions in ways which balance different interests and create an open market across Europe for the resulting goods and services. No-one believes it is perfect, but it has underwritten both continued expansion of the economies of Western Europe, including our own, and the successful development of the economies of central Europe following the collapse of their Russian-inspired communist regimes at the end of the 1980s. It has also underwritten an unprecedented growth of trade between Europe and the rest of the world.

The result has been not merely the creation of the world’s largest free trade area but, much more importantly, the development for the first time in history of open liberal societies across the whole of Europe, and it has allowed Europe as a whole to play a full part in the development of liberal societies across the globe.

By any normal political standards this would be regarded as a stunning success. Successive generations of European politicians have set out reasonably consistent objectives, pursued them reasonably consistently, and ultimately delivered them.

Britain has been part of the process, partly because we embrace the objectives for ourselves, but also because we believe their adoption by others makes our continent a safer and more stable place to live.

That is what is now at risk. 

The referendum is being used as an excuse to withdraw Britain’s support for this process and to describe any opposition as undemocratic.

In place of the successful commitment of half a century to build a community of like-minded nations with a commitment to mutual security and common interests, our government is pursuing a destructive agenda which owes more to short term political calculation than it does to any coherent view of Britain’s interests and security.

And what is the response?

Despite the welcome recent willingness of the Labour leadership to make the case for an extended transitional period, it remains true that no party has set out a remotely credible version of what lies at the end of the transitional period – however long.

Our politics is a masterclass in cynicism. The government is embarked on a course which the majority of ministers and backbench MPs continue to believe – as they argued last year – will profoundly prejudice our essential national interests. The majority of opposition MPs share the view of their government colleagues but choose to watch the process unfold largely in silence.

That is why it is so important for cross-party pro-European voices to come together to challenge Britain’s drift towards Trumpian isolationism.

Of course we must hear the voters’ voice.

But democracy is a dialogue in which all voices should be heard.

And it must allow voters to change their mind.

It has never been more important. 

Stephen Dorrell is chair of the European Movement UK and a former cabinet minister. Follow the European Movement UK on Twitter @euromove

This comment piece was covered in The Independent on Tuesday 5 September 2017 - read it here.

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