The Most Democratic Attempt to Overrule Democracy
If you’re in the UK and haven’t been on a social media detox for the last week, you’ve probably heard of this petition. Taking the digital space by storm, the petition calls for revocation of Article 50, the a clause in the European Union’s (EU) Lisbon Treaty which governs the process for any country seeking to leave the bloc. Easily the most signed petition confronted by the House of Commons Petitions Committee since it’s creation, the increased traffic has proved difficult to manage, at times taking the service down with an overflow of attempts to open the page.
This petition comes at a time when much of the public has lost faith in Theresa May’s ability to guide the country through the tumultuous waters of Brexit. Understandably many have decided to capitalise on the chaos to turn back time almost three years, undoing the Brexit process completely.
Here’s why it won’t happen, and why it shouldn’t.
I think it’s first important to clarify that I am by no means a fan of the course Theresa May has plotted (or more likely drifted along) that has brought us to where we are now. We are seven days away from what feels like the UK’s “judgement day”, with no idea what’s happening after April 12th, the EU’s generous extension in the event the MP’s do not approve Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal — the very same voted down in historic fashion only recently. If it makes me a “remoaner” to despise the idea of a no-deal Brexit on March 29th, then so be it.
Petitions in general are a great way of challenging the government to address issues that are not getting their fair hearing, and I am a big fan of parliament’s threshold system for requiring a minimum response from the government and eventually a debate on the issue. But it’s very clear these are guidance and not guarantee. The government has previously decided not to debate petitions that reached the required threshold, on the grounds that the issue has already been covered. Brexit couldn’t be more obvious a candidate for this kind of response. With a referendum and literally hundreds of hours spend in parliament discussing the terms and process of Brexit, it’s unlikely parliament will spend time, in its stressful lead-up to the hallowed date of the 29th, discussing such a broad request as to “Revoke Article 50”.
For those who have signed the petition: Would you truly consider it a victory if the government took this petition, and decided to revoke Article 50? Common sense would say yes of course, otherwise there’s not a lot of point signing. But to do so would be a complete upheaval of liberal democratic process, that people seem to be willing to ignore when it favours their political outlook. A direct referendum has taken place on this issue, in which a majority of voters and plurality of the electorate decided to trigger Article 50 and leave the EU, much to my dismay. In a rare moment of agreement with Andrea Leadsom MP, I believe she has hit the nail on the head.
Despite my strong belief that a no-deal Brexit constitutes a catastrophic failure that could harm the UK economy for a generation, I would undoubtedly get to the streets in the event that a petition of malcontents vitriolically shared on Twitter takes precedent over a democratic process. Particularly given sample issues present with such a petition. Setting such a precedent would be greatly troubling for the future of democracy in the UK. Imagine say, 3.5 million users signed a petition to outlaw same-sex marriage? There would be national outcry, rightly so, at the idea of an arbitrary number of unverified individuals being able to overturn a decision enshrined into law with a democratic mandate. So why should this be any different? Question if you truly believe that giving the government such means to ignore democratic decisions is wise and true to our democratic principles.
There are little to no protections on the site that restrict signatories to British citizens. This hasn’t stopped people taking the sample of petitioners and drawing conclusions on the opinion of the people. Such conclusions have at times proved extremely ironic, as people seek to compare the two popular petitions on the side at current — one in favour of revoking Article 50 and the other in favour of a no deal Brexit — in order to determine which has a majority. Almost like a referendum really?
Another aspect not to be ignored, is the issue of sample selection. There’s a good chance your first encounter of this petition was on social media, and you wouldn’t be alone. With the hashtag “#RevokeArticle50” appearing in over 200,000 tweets in the last 24 hours at the time of writing, hype around the petition has primarily come from Twitter. An audience with a young, typically more politically active demographic than the population parameters of the UK electorate. Any attempts to equate signatory proportions with the people’s democratic will woefully underestimate the generational divide in the Brexit vote, in which the older demographic were much more likely to vote for Brexit.
Democracy got us into this mess, only democracy can get us out of it. The people’s vote was the only way to find the answers to these questions in a way that gave parliament a true mandate, but the Labour party prevented such attempts when they elected to abstain from voting on an amendment which would have initiated a second referendum, on the basis it was not quite the amendment they desired. Too little, too late, and their actions should not be forgotten quickly.
A no-deal Brexit, as bad as it is, is second in priority to maintaining the principles of liberal democracy on which this country operates.