As the costs of Brexit become increasingly clear to anyone paying attention, it appears obvious that when we leave we are going to pay a big economic price. But isn’t the democratic mandate of the Brexit referendum the most important thing about it? Don’t we owe it to ourselves, in order to respect democracy, to carry on with the endeavour regardless of its cost?
These were the questions a friend of mine was confronted by while his coworkers were discussing Brexit at work, and he asked the question;
I don’t really know how to respond, other than declare that I personally am not willing to stand by & let my families lives get wrecked irrespective of the outcome of a vote. If that’s undemocratic then so be it…
So, does that thinking hold water? We should really apply some critical thinking to this problem and see whether there are any effective counter argument.
Let’s break the argument down to its basic components: (a) we value the preservation democracy above all; (b) we had a VERY narrowly won vote on the subject of leaving the EU; (c) that means we should carry through and leave. How does this argument fail? I think it’s important to note that if carrying through Brexit were to deal serious damage to our democracy, then (a) should make us worry about whether the net result is worthwhile. Furthermore, voting isn’t the totality of our democracy – our institutions and customs form a major part of our democracy; the courts & rule of law, local councils, Parliament, Government, even arguably our security & emergency services.
One thing which is not a big part of our democracy is referenda. There’s a good reason for that – they tend to force instability, they polarize debate, they force people to give up nuance, like your colleagues have. I would argue that any referendum result for anything has to utterly overwhelm all of the other considerations of our democracy for it to be followed blindly. We KNOW that leaving the EU hurts our economy, but what does that mean?
It means we lose taxes. We lose jobs. We lose the ability to fund our NHS, our courts, our councils, our MPs, to police our borders, to maintain our army, to negotiate on a level field with other major economies, to innovate. These are all components of democracy. We know that this damage is likely to be severe, and it’s looking increasingly likely that we will revive the ghost of the Troubles in the process. All of this is fundamentally UNdemocratic. Hence, we have to ask: is the democratic weight of the referendum enough to continue to justify Brexit?
Less than 50% of the franchise deigned to vote either way. The referendum was in fact distinctly underwhelming, no matter which side you supported at the time. And opinions are changing in the wake, so whatever democratic power it had is waning fast! The referendum was also advisory, which means that there is no legal necessity to follow through. Breaking the law would be severely undemocratic, but there is no law saying we have to. Hence, our institutions have to do what’s best for the UK. If we use statement (a) to guide our actions hence, it seems clear to me that the only thing to do which actually preserves our democracy is for our MPs to rally against Brexit. It’s bad for our economy, it’s bad for individuals, it’s bad for our democracy.
And let’s not forget that as part of the EU our citizens are members of a much bigger franchise which can hold our own Govt to account. In return, we get to shape EU policies and priorities. That is arguably our democratic responsibility. So to those people, I say; our democracy is more than our votes. To leave the EU will be to irreparably damage our democracy, and to doom many institutions which make us great. Not only is it wrong to claim Brexit is democratic – it’s wrong in the most perverse way.