Britain’s going nowhere

The people have spoken, apparently. No-one seems quite sure what they said, but we’re being told that it’s an affront against democracy to stop charging headlong to implement it.

Odd sort of democracy, that. Sounds more like a stampede, a blind rush to be the most zealous to do… something.

What are we doing? Why? How? And who are we crushing in the stampede?

We are, we’re told, “taking back control”. Who, then, are we giving it to?

The Leavers’ argument is that we are giving it back to the British People. But notwithstanding the fact that most of them seemed content with the current state, the People don’t rule directly; for that to happen, every single decision on however trivial or complicated a subject would have to be a binding referendum — utterly unwieldy and impractical.

So, we have an elective Parliamentary Democracy instead; professionals we select to understand and make decisions on the issues that affect us. They are expected to inform themselves and balance the will of the people with possibility, precedent (in the form of existing laws and our constitution) and the nation’s internal and external obligations. These Members of Parliament form the Legislative (law-making) arm of a three-part structure that has been the standard basis of democratic structures since the times of Ancient Greece, when the concept of Dēmokratia, rule by the people, emerged.

The other two arms of the Democratic Model are the Judicial arm — the courts which ensure that these laws are consistently and constitutionally applied in terms with precedent, and the Executive which wields the authority, to ensure that laws are enforced.

None of these arms “rule the country”; they exist to manage it, co-operatively, with the mandate of the people.

Years ago, of course, the UK did have rulers; sovereign monarchs, ruling through “divine authority”. Much of the UK’s political history — indeed, that of its empire and colonies too — has been the story of the transition from absolute rule to the more democratic state we currently have, through the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the American War of Independence (fought primarily in response to the failure of the then King and Government to grant representative rights to what were then British Colonies), and the independence of the remaining Empire.

Sometimes, we fail to realise that this process is still incomplete. Despite fighting a Civil War to limit the powers of the King and assert the rights of Parliament, and constitutional limitations of the power of the monarchy during the Glorious Revolution, “Royal power” is not the “constitutional fiction” we sometimes assume it is. The Royal Prerogative still exists, although it is now wielded — by convention only, nothing more — by the Ministers of the Crown — that is, the Prime Minister and Ministers of the Cabinet.

Fortunately, there are strict constraints on this undemocratic legacy. The actions that the Prime Minster can take — even when claiming some undefined “popular mandate” — are strictly limited. The Crown, and its ministers, cannot completely bypass the Legislature or the Judiciary; the interpreted desires of the “British People” (or some self-selected subset thereof) are not a substitute for Parliament.

This is exactly the situation that arose recently when the Executive attempted to abuse its power to use the results of the advisory referendum on leaving the EU to its own ends, and take that control for itself. The Judiciary were called in to adjudicate, and did so in accordance with the law to ensure the integrity of our constitution. It is not the Judiciary who were attacking our democratic structure, but the Executive.

But the executive is hardly alone in attempting to redefine the meaning and structure of “democracy” in the UK. The Leave movement, in conjunction with the Fourth Estate, are attempting to move it closer to a state of mob rule, tyranny of the majority. Those who dare dissent with the supposed voice of the majority (which it never actually was), are now castigated as “Enemies of the people”, threatened and attacked.

That is not democracy, under any form. Democracy guarantees the right to dissent and opposition. Democracy, indeed, *requires* opposition to the government, which is why political parties and their representatives continue to exist and operate within the legislature even after failing to win an electoral majority. The Referendum, having no legal weight above being “Advisory”, does not over-ride this. Nor does it clear our representatives of their duty to balance the professed desires of their own constituents with what is possible, and what is in the best interest of the country.

It is quite saddening, then, to see them utterly failing to perform their duty of care. Even MPs who campaigned to Remain in the EU are citing “the voice of the people” (actually about 27% of “the people”, and only a slight majority of those who actually voted); Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition continue to fail to oppose anything of significance. Further, these representatives are deliberately ignoring the rest of the country, and thereby violating their right to representation. All because, under some completely unexplained and undefined sleight of hand, they wish to pretend that the meaning of the term “advisory” can change retroactively. If the referendum was intended to be more than advice, it should have been legally framed as such, and agreed as such by the Legislature. Otherwise the British People were invited to vote under false pretences, which must call into question the legitimacy of the entire process.

That said, of course, we already know that the vote was held under false pretences. It’s hard to find a single “promise” of the Leave campaign that has been, or can be, kept. Indeed it seems hard to find a promise that they’ll admit to having made, everything instead being “suggestions” or “illustrations”. The £350 million / week for the NHS has already been lost into the fall of the economy and costs of negotiations. Vote Leave’s promise of a “careful change” in which we “negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave” has been shown to be a bare lie. If “Brexit”, in any flavour, does not vaguely represent what was promised before the vote, why is there any compulsion to deliver what was never asked for? We are left instead with the choice of a Soft Brexit, in which we remain within the trading domain of the EU (and therefore subject to, but unable to control, all appropriate regulations) or a Hard Brexit, which looks increasingly like economic suicide, with absolutely no nations currently showing the slightest interest in dealing with us. It should be remembered at this point that the UK is only 60% self-sufficient in food, barely self-sufficient in electricity, and a net importer of other forms of energy; isolationism is not an option.

So — the electorate was given (at best) dodgy advice. They passed that advice on, with a 48% “minority opinion” (which has of course since grown significantly), to the Legislature. This means that the Legislature has to deal with what it knows is incredibly dodgy and disputed advice, so it is fortunate that it can also seek further expert opinion and debate the matter internally rather than slavishly following the screams of the extremists who demand that we exit at any cost.

Because if we don’t continue to act like a democratic, sane country and step back from the brink, we’re all going to end up looking really stupid.