Brexit and Democracy

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: 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

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 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.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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6 Responses to Brexit and Democracy

  1. Andrew Rosthorn says:

    Trotter’s “ill-clad, cauliflower-eared, uncultured proles”, voting Leave in the referendum, sound like “beefsteak Nazis”, those despairing ieft-wing lower class Germans who put their faith in Hitler and served him in the SA, “brown outside and red inside”. And like Sassoon’s General on the road up to Arras, Hitler did for them all by his plan of attack.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Trotter says:

      This is the pitiful standard response of the left to anyone who disagrees with it – call them fascists, unwitting or otherwise (it’s increasing to the point where someone who decides to visit Dresden probably runs the risk of being labelled a Pegida supporter). Whereas the 48% who voted to stay in the EU did so from the purest of reasons, untainted by an inability to think clearly and weigh the arguments before deciding to vote remain, the 52% who voted to leave the EU were all ignorant failures, recidivists and many may have had family links to A. Hitler himself.

      I need only remind you and anyone else who despairs of the apparently anti-democratic outcome of the referendum that had it gone the other way there would be no demands for a second referendum, despite the oft quoted statement by Farage, because those on the losing side would have accepted the result as representative of the desires of the people of the UK and would have accepted it. The political class would have proclaimed it an end to the question and that would most definitely have been that.

      What we see now is merely another example of what’s happened to every other referendum in Europe that has given the wrong answer – hold another referendum until the idiots give us the answer we wanted in the first place, whereupon the matter will be considered to have been settled in a democratic fashion. Even EUrophiles must acknowledge that this has happened on numerous occasions.The latest demands come from, surprise, surprise, the SNP in Scotland and the left in Britain in general. Do I need to point out why some people might begin to consider that the EU project and its supporters are not as democratic as they bleat and might decide to vote to leave?

      It’s all a waste of breath really since the fine arguments posed by supporters of the EU are nothing more than shiny veneers overlaying deeply held conviction and opinion, and nothing will change those people’s minds. So long, and thanks for all the fish


    • Thanks, Andrew; yes the parallel seems close, though I imagine ‘Trotter’ will dismiss it, too, as elitist denigration of the working classes. That despite the fact that millions of the working classes – those who didn’t follow Farage or Trump in their desperation – would go along with it. I don’t despise them, or the ‘ordinary Germans’ who followed Hitler, for this. (‘Trotter’ is quite wrong here.) The fault lies in the choices that are – were – presented to them. And the responsibility for that in its turn lies with those who, in both the US and the UK, shore up a basically unrepresentative political system, a self-satisfied and deeply conventional political elite, and a grossly misleading means of propaganda (our 40th-ranked ‘free’ press). Bernie, if he’d got the nomination, might have harnessed the same reasonable unrest to a different end. I’m hoping Jeremy can here.


  2. Trotter says:

    This comment is, ahem, risible.
    “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.”

    Who’s to say that a young person who (may have) voted to Remain will remain (ho ho ho) alive longer than an old person who (may have) voted to leave? Is one’s vote to be chained to life expectancy? And your dismissal of everyone who voted to leave as ‘foolish’, and your impeccably ‘logical’ demands for a second referendum are mere puffs of wind. No matter, it won’t stop the echoes bouncing around as Porter and his fans slap each other on the back and congratulate each other on their superior intellects while sighing over the fact that so many nasty, common little people were ever enfranchised. I mean, really, it wasn’t *meant* to be like this! Those ill-clad, cauliflower eared, uncultured proles were supposed to *listen* to us, and do what *we* told them, not start imaging that *they* had any right to exercise their votes in ways contrary to our instructions.

    It must be awfully difficult squaring the circle of the egalitarian liberal act with the rather contradictory but deeply held conviction that the masses really can’t be trusted and must be dictated to. For their own good, obviously. There’s nothing of the right wing elitist about me, oh no!

    I won’t expect a reply as this is Anonymous. Nor do I really want one!


  3. On the other hand, the ‘checks and balances’ of the US system have done so much checking over the decades that the US remains the only rich country without a universal health care system.

    ‘Brexit and Democracy’ does not mention the perverting power of money, which is a primary distorter of democracy, especially in the case of the US, which is now more plutocratic than democratic.

    It is true that monied interests, except in the hands of the tabloids, were not a factor in the Brexit vote. However, the whole neo-liberal project – which has ravaged the North and predisposed it to Brexit – has been funded root and branch by Capital, bringing on Thatcherism, New Labour (Thatcherism’s greatest legacy) and then Cameron-May. Until Corbyn, the public has had a choice between neo-liberalism lite and its full-strength alternative.


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