This article originally appeared in The National Student on 14th January 2019.
Every time someone mentions Brexit or The People’s Vote, the conversation sparks such fury that one feels a room tense up as soon as the topic arises. However, these conversations often ignore a question that remains unaddressed: what is the relationship between our political system, democracy, and the power to change one’s mind?
While I voted remain, I am not a fan of the European Union; the imposition of austerity on Greece by the European Union during the bailout has had catastrophic effects on the country; Elsewhere, migrants from war-torn Libya were refused shelter because of European policies. The contempt of this last policy saw 1, 111 people die in the Mediterranean Sea between June and July 2018.
As an institution, it seems to me that the European Union does more harm than good.
I voted remain because I believed the Conservative government would only exacerbate the European model of austerity, violence and racism. If circumstances arose that I felt would lead to the search of a more open and humane United Kingdom rather than harm the world, could I ever change my mind? Under what conditions? In what context? And with whose permission?
Can we change our mind?
Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question is to consider what we have been told about the possibility of altering the course of Brexit. Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General, stated in February 2018 “The six months we have between now and the autumn are so important. It is going to be decision time […] in the sense of […] being a final decision. If people do want to change their mind, and they could if they wanted to, the time is now”. Grieve does not specify the manner the public can change their mind, although he does state he does not support a second referendum. Of course, a second referendum, commonly referred to as ‘The People’s Vote’, represents one form the public could change its mind. However, the form of this referendum is somewhat elusive: sometimes it is referred to as an opportunity to reverse Brexit, at others an opportunity to give the people a say on the final Brexit deal. But a focus on a second referendum effaces questions I believe to be far more pressing, questions that go to the core of our democratic system.
In Grieve’s estimation, the window of opportunity to change one’s mind is six months, or else. Of course, he has no official authority to set such a deadline, but attention to previous referendums indicates an even tighter form of temporal control.
Third time the charm?
The People’s Vote, which I just referred to as ‘the second referendum’, would actually be the third. The 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union was, in truth, the second. Repeated references to The People’s Vote as a second referendum — such as this YouGov survey — indicate it threatens to obscure the first in the mind of UK citizens. The first, in 1975, resulted in a vote to remain in Europe. There was a 41-year gap between the two referendums; are we to assume that, between June 5th, 1975 and June 23rd, 2016, the public’s attitude toward the European Union remained stable? Of course not.
So why did the government wait 41 years to consult the people?
Was it really about the People?
When then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans for what would become the 2016 referendum, he addressed ‘public disillusionment with the EU’, or, at least, that’s what he said. Reportedly, he announced the referendum, not for altruistic reasons, but rather to settle Conservative rebels within his party over Pizza in Chicago O’Hare airport. Amidst countless Tory MPs defecting to UKIP, many citing Cameron’s leadership as their motivation, and fears voters would follow them, Cameron needed to take decisive action. Therefore, when Cameron added his ‘voice to those who are already calling for’ a referendum, his voice was directed to members of his own party, and it spoke in a desperate plea for their approval. In joining his voice with theirs, he hoped to assuage their rebellion.
In short, Cameron decided to give the people the opportunity to change their mind for his own gain. He set the terms. It would be after the next election as a binary choice between remain or leave: the how and when of the people’s power to change their mind. But most important to remember is that Cameron made a decision to let the people change their mind. It did not emerge in response to a call from the British people, but rather as a quick-fix for Cameron’s political woes.
The power to change one’s mind is contingent on those who already have power. It is not something one naturally has in the UK; it is only ‘gifted’ to the people when it suits those who already possess power.
What is a democratic system?
What is intriguing about The People’s Vote is the constant deference to ‘democracy’ by both those who support and oppose it. For instance, another former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stated in an interview in response to accusations that another referendum would undermine democracy: “how can it be undemocratic to say to the British people, ‘OK in light of [the difficulties that have emerged during the Brexit negotiations], do you want to proceed or do you want to stay’”? Elsewhere, current Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that another referendum would “do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”. In all this debate, the word ‘democracy’ is thrown around like cheap confetti, and no one seems to be able to agree what it means. Indeed, if ‘democracy’ is as essential to us as its prevalence suggests, then attention must be paid to what it means.
In the context of a referendum, democracy becomes the distribution of agency to a population at a specific moment in time in order to answer a specific question. The terms and available answers to this question are determined by individuals who already have power (MPs in government). In other words, the way individuals can express their agency is already decided before they can make a choice. This seems to be the case with both Blair and May’s understanding of the relationship between referendums and democracy (ignoring, as they both do, that the referendum is non-binding): both emphasise the agency a referendum gives to the people to decide the course of a nation.
But it begins to break down when we think about the time that passes between referendums. If we accept that a referendum is a democratic action that distributes agency to a population, the population’s command of that agency is unstable because of the inconsistency of the government’s willingness to listen. If a question is asked, and the population answer one way on one day, but then are asked the same question again later on and answer another, does the repetition of the question undermine the democratic action of the first referendum? How much time must elapse between both answers before it is “democratic”? Why is the 2016 referendum read as legitimate even as it effaces the 1975 one, while another referendum now would be illegitimate? Would another referendum be legitimate if it was held five years down the line? Or must it wait another 41 years?
The answer is of course… silence. It is not a question that can be answered. It speaks to the fact our political system is incapable of dealing with the very time it is swept up in. As time changes, so do people, and in time, they change their minds. We saw this occur between 1975 and 2016, as the population shifted from being mainly in favour of remaining in the EU to wanting to leave. Why is the time that has passed since 2016, two and a half years at the time of writing, not a legitimate period of time for a population to change its mind? Indeed, May is distinctly aware of the possibility the public may have changed their mind: she has stated that another referendum ‘would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver’. Another referendum would only result in Brexit not being delivered if the result of this referendum was a decision to remain in the EU. In other words, May is arguing against letting the people possess agency over Brexit, in having the capacity to change their mind, precisely because she knows that they could change their mind.
To what extent is our system undemocratic because it cannot account for the ways in which the opinions and desires of a population shift and alter?
And what now?
Perhaps we should move the question to a higher plane: to what extent is our system democratic? Indeed, perhaps the UK is less democratic than we like to pretend: the House of Lords, for instance, is not elected but appointed; the UK still has an unelected monarchy; and Theresa May, for an entire year, was Prime Minister without a single vote cast in her name. For all the shouts of democracy, undemocratic practices pervade this country.
One of the common responses to The People’s Vote is: where does it stop? If we have another referendum, why not have another, and another, and another? It would be impractical!
But perhaps it is time to be impractical. If the people change their minds, then change them back, then change them another way, why should they be ignored? It is time to ask the difficult questions and ask to what extent our country is democratic, and how we can make it more democratic. If, as many have postulated, Brexit was a response to the dissatisfaction felt by the British people by the current political system, then we should hold tight to that dissatisfaction and, rather than blaming it on migrants or the working class, ask if it doesn’t stem within a system that is itself undemocratic. Maybe then we can begin to think outside the terms of what we are told is possible, to think the impossible, and to build a kinder and better society, rooted in an equality that may be unavailable in our current system.
And, from there, we should start the difficult journey of asking how we can build a country that can give the people the power to change their mind.