Recent events related to Brexit have shone a bright light on the question of democracy in the modern world. From the call for a second UK exit referendum (often referred to as “a people’s vote”), to the Scottish vote on independence, or the degree of influence smaller European nations exert within the EU process: everything relies to some extent upon the adherence of everyone to the principals of liberal democracy.
The protection of the rights of small sections of a population is one of the pillars of modern democratic systems. That is why we have seen the changes in UK laws to allow activities that were recently considered illegal. It is also why many countries try to provide space for minority movements, philosophies and incoming nationalities, even when their activities might be viewed with suspicion by the majority.
But small is not always beautiful. When the financial world went into free-fall in 2008, it was, by and large, the smaller national entities that were most vulnerable. In the UK, for example, we were fixated at one point on the woes of a small island in the North Atlantic called Iceland. Their banking crisis had a dramatic impact on many in Britain (and Holland). An IMF aid-package involved the loan of some $5bn with lots of talk about National Sovereign Debt, GDP and GNP etc. – and yet the population of Iceland was only 315,000, about the same size as Cardiff, Wakefield or Dudley.
Greece, at the heart of the financial woes of Europe post-2008, and the recipient of some 290 billion Euros of rescue loans, is also often assumed to be a largish country about the size of France or Italy. In fact, it had a population at that time of 11 million, about 17% of that of France, or 14% of Germany’s. So what drove the Europeans to stand by Greece at such a high cost?
Or what today makes the more than 740 million people of Europe prepared to risk huge swathes of potential unemployment in the event of a no-deal Brexit for the sake of the Republic of Ireland, a country of less than 5 million?
There are increasing numbers who question the scaling-up of the concept of a Liberal Democracy on the grounds that it starts to erode the first belief of the democratic process – that is that the wish of the majority is what counts. People are questioning the ability of really large geo-political entities to be able to represent the views of all those contained within its borders – which is a major factor in the British desire to leave Europe, of course.
However, and somewhat perversely, some minorities are able to argue that their political, cultural and economic futures depend upon being freed of close ties to a local democracy which does not give them precisely what they want, and becoming an independent member of a larger grouping – such as Europe. The Basques of Spain, or the Scots are examples – and some in Cornwall also aspire to some form of independent existence in the EU. (Though cynics say that the real reason for some of these aspirations has as much to do with EU financial hand-outs as anything else.)
Senior EU officials have indicated that they do not welcome a splintering of current national entities. They would then be faced with many of the same problems that national governments are wrestling with: i.e. to what extent do the wishes of a minority have to be accommodated if they are at odds with a majority? Should a newly autonomous region with, say, a million or two people, suddenly be allowed a veto on overall European foreign or defence policies? Is it not possible, for example, that a newly independent Scotland within Europe would view it as payback-time for centuries of “English” dominance? (A rhetorical question of course as the UK is baling out at the end of October, come-what-may.)
Aside from the regular accusation that the EU makes decisions without having to account for them to the voters of Europe, these distorted or “skewed” national voting powers have become one of the examples cited by people who believe Europe is increasingly un-democratic. They point to the fact that smaller states have a disproportionate influence in relation to the size of their populations.
All states in Europe have de-jure equal rights. In matters of defence and foreign policy, for example, decisions have to be agreed by all the member states. And so, if the representatives of Luxembourg were to disagree with the UK over a matter of improving protection for tankers in the Med, they would be able to veto a UK proposal to that effect; that is to say, the views of some 430,000 people outweigh the views of 65 million – or even over 700 million. (As long as one accepts that the MEPs do actually represent the views of their constituencies.) So how is that democratic?
Within the context of Europe and Britain’s apparent imminent departure, it is understandable that many in this country to feel there is something fundamentally wrong about the fact that we no longer have democratic control over much of the legislation or policy decisions that emerge from the EU? Is it wrong for Britons to feel that they are giving up too much to states which have very little in common with us in terms of history, politics, culture or respect for the rule of law? (Or which are just too “bloomin’ small” to be allowed to “push us around”?)
These are sentiments that might seem more in line with a Trump administration perhaps. But when you start to explain to Europeans why Britain still feels bad about abandoning its Commonwealth trade partners such as New Zealand or Canada in favour of Europe, there is often a degree of surprise about the extent of the trade-offs we had to make in order to join the EU, and quite a lot of sympathy for the dilemma we still seem to face.
However, in the interests of true democracy, can one define “We” or “Us”? The Scots might well vote to leave the UK in a future referendum. But that decision might actually be taken by a proportion of those who are both able to vote and actually do so. If you take off the young, those who did not vote, and those who vote to remain, perhaps only a third of the people might actually vote to leave. So who would “We” represent in that case? Would people who voted to remain in the United Kingdom then have the right to split from an independent Scotland and form their own state, aligned with the UK? If not, then why not?
The 2016 UK referendum resulted in a marginal vote to leave the EU. However, as the military teaches us, when a decision is needed, it can only be made on the basis of the information available at the time. You cannot sensibly base it on too many unknown facts and criteria. But – and this is an important caveat, we are also taught that we should be flexible enough to modify a plan as and when new information becomes available. So we might start off by going “left-flanking” and then, when a minefield is encountered in that direction, change the plan to go right instead. Why can we not do the same with the question of Brexit?
One argument against a new referendum is that it would be “un-democratic” as it would not respect the votes of those people in 2016. Well, on that basis nothing would ever change in this or any other country. We would still be honouring the views of Parliamentarians sitting in the 17th century on topics as wide ranging as religion, votes for women, capital punishment and the like. Who knows, a proportion of those who voted in 2016 might not even be alive today – so are “We” eternally bound by “Their” wishes? Or do we acknowledge the times and facts have changed and that it is perfectly democratic to re-visit the issue in the light of the new facts available?
Democracy does not divide internal peoples into “We” and “Them”, whether on the basis of age, or sex, or wealth – or indeed any other criteria. We are all part of the whole. A decision made in 1960 was “as British” as one made in 2015. But it does recognise that in some cases a majority is so marginal that its validity might be questionable when a really critical decision is being made. This is even more the case in the age of social media-based influencers such as Cambridge Analytica who might be able to swing a vote by a few percentage points by using false information or other less than honest methods.
We, the country, voted to leave Europe in 2016. We, the country, can vote in 2019 to stay, or do whatever we want – as a country. The second vote is, arguably, certainly as valid as the first, and, given that it is more recent, has added currency, making it the decision we should honour. (Until, of course, we at some point decide, as a country, to have another vote on the subject.)
However, all parts of the country that vote should then honour that decision. That is what democracy is all about. We cannot then start to split down into ever smaller groups, for that leads down the route of anarchy where, logically, we all act as self-serving individuals. At a time when violence seems to be on the rise, and the Earth is threatened by our activities, we need to stay together and work together. No other course of action is going to be able to stave off the worst effects of a combination of global socio-political unrest and major climate-change.