Is it democracy? Is that where the fault lies, if such it be? Brexit was a democratic decision, albeit narrowly. Trump was elected by enough of the people, at any rate, to satisfy the ground rules of American democracy. Is democracy – the will of the people – inherently fallible?
Henrik Ibsen seems to have thought so. ‘The majority is never right. Never, I tell you.’ Anti-democrats from ancient times onwards have always feared so, and for the same reason as Ibsen. ‘For who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population – the intelligent ones or the fools?’ (This is Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People.) We have ample reason to think that many of those who voted for Brexit did so for ‘foolish’ reasons: misinformed, irrelevant to the main issue, or stupid in other ways. The same can also probably be said for the other side; but because they were mainly more intellectual (not the same of course as intelligent) they’ve been better able to spot and point out the fallacies coming from the other side. Which is only to say that majorities are not to be depended upon on anything. Relying on them, even to express their own wishes, let alone their best interests, can have unfortunate and even fearsome outcomes. The best you can probably say for democracy is that – as Churchill once put it – it is ‘the worst system of government: apart from all the rest’.
But it can be refined. One of the problems with our present Anglo-American so-called democracies is that they are crude. Votes are taken infrequently, and counted and represented through a method that doesn’t necessarily reflect the real desires of the voters. In both Britain and America this is mainly the fault of the ‘first past the post’ constituency system, which – as in the present and all recent British cases – can endow parties that garner only minorities of voters overall with disproportionate power. Proportional representation, modified in order to represent local interests too, would solve this: albeit at the cost of perpetual coalitions, which would force governments to compromise in line with the popular will. (I’ve written about this before: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/.) Even when referenda are called on ‘single issues’, those issues are usually muddied with others, as was clearly the case in the Brexit referendum, when many people voted not so much on the European issue as because they were dissatisfied with ‘austerity’, or resented extra-European immigration, or were fed up with the Conservatives, or with ‘Westminster government’ generally. (See https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/)
Furthermore, often the information supplied to the electorate in order to guide their choices is unreliable, due to lies and deception (that £350 billion for the NHS; our unfree press is of course much to blame for this); or to simple ignorance on the part of the general population; compounded by no less ignorance on the part of the ‘experts’ arguing for one side or another. Who really knew what the effects of Brexit would be? I was a pretty well-briefed Remainer, but have been as surprised as anyone by some of the outcomes of the vote. It’s only now that the true implications of Brexit can be glimpsed. Wouldn’t it be better to have a new vote on the basis of this new knowledge, than still to rely on a vote taken in almost total ignorance? The argument, by Brexiteers, that this would be ‘undemocratic’ because the ‘will of the people’ has already been expressed is self-evidently risible. Any true democracy should be able, firstly, to decide issues on the basis of full and untainted evidence, and, secondly, to change its mind. That’s the problem with the crude, direct, instantaneous form of democracy that was represented by the referendum.
Actually our (British) system of government, deficient as it is in many regards but wise in this one, was supposed to deal with just this problem by making it obligatory for acts of state to be effected only after several debates and votes in Parliament, and then with the possibility of their being withdrawn later on. Certainly that applied, and should apply, to existential acts of state, which EU withdrawal clearly is. At the time of the EU referendum a majority of MPs were Remainers, and would have voted that way in the Parliamentary debates that followed if they had not voluntarily given up their constitutional right to do so. So the ‘checks and balances’ implicit in the British constitution were set at nought. That was because our Right-wing press would have called them ‘traitors’ and ‘undemocratic’ if they hadn’t. In fact the probable result of any Parliamentary resistance would have been another general election, with new MPS elected partly on their attitudes to Europe; but after a more intelligent public debate, and probably a new general election on the basis of that. If Corbyn had won that election, or come as close as he did in the last one, he would have recruited thousands of young voters, endowed with a new interest and confidence in politics, who would probably have turned the tables on the Brexiteers. It’s well known that the young were mainly Remainers, but were out-voted by us old crusties. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/08/06/the-old-have-shafted-the-young/.) A democracy that doesn’t represent those citizens who are most likely to be affected by its decisions – my generation will all be dead by the time Brexit really hits home – isn’t a true democracy at all.
So it isn’t democracy that’s to blame, per se. Only the present forms of it. True democracy requires ‘checks and balances’. The US system is supposed to have these. Let’s see if they can work any better than ours.