After the actual word “Brexit” it was the most used word in the whole of the Brexit debate. I speak, of course, of the word “Democracy”.
The word “democracy” and the practice of government which it typifies, has a long and chequered career, going back to the ancient Greek state of Athens. It refers to a form of government in which the people of the state have the authority and opportunity to choose their governing legislation and those who legislate. Who people are and how authority is shared are core issues for democratic development.
This word, or one of its derivatives, was primarily used by the proponents of Brexit to emphasis their case for withdrawing from the European Union. The argument of the so-called “Brexiteers” referred to the fact that, at the 2016 EU Referendum, the electorate voted, albeit by a small % margin, to withdraw from the EU.
On 23 June 2016, the recorded result was that the UK voted to leave the European Union by 51.89% for Leave to 48.11% for Remain, a margin of 3.78%. This corresponded to 17,410,742 votes to leave and 16,141,241 to remain, a margin of 1,269,501 votes. The national turnout was 72% of the population eligible to vote. So, the overall democratic decision of the British electorate was to “Leave the European Union”, with England and Wales voting to “Leave” while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to “Remain”.
As the above information shows “democracy” is understood in terms of the outcome of a single substantive referendum, moreover, a referendum in which the voting citizens in only two out of four constituent British countries, rather than a majority of all UK citizens in all British constituent countries, voted to leave the EU. The UK is to leave the EU on 31 January 2020 with a British population arguably equally divided between leaving and remaining in the EU. “Democracy” is here understood as “the winner (Leavers) takes all”, with the losers (Remainers) becoming a page in the history books!
It remains to be experienced as to whether the promises given to the British people in consequence of leaving the EU will come to fruition. The situations and events in the national life of the UK over the coming years will reveal the truth or otherwise of the Brexiteer promises and their insistent expressions of the “democratic will” of the British people.
In the meantime, it is legitimate to ask as to whether some of the other outstanding concerns of democrats in the UK will merit the attention given to democracy by the Leave proponents in the EU Referendum. Such concerns would include the following:
• The reform of the voting system in the UK. At present this is the “first past the post” system of electing local and national governments, as well as referenda. It has been consistently shown that a “proportional” voting system would be a more just and more universal system of voting.
When it suits their purposes, successive British governments have been fond of directing attention to the successful practices of other countries – why not a more modern and democratic form of electing governments?
• The reform of the British House of Lords. This chamber of British government is composed of unelected persons, perhaps representing designated political parties but not associated with a specifically designated political constituency or electorate. Members of the House of Lords are appointed, often in consequence of political patronage. Moreover, “Lords” or “Peers” (for such are members of the House of Lords known in parliament and in daily life) are appointed for the duration of their lives.
Consequences of this system include the reality that, by its very nature, the House of Lords discriminates in favour of an elderly and ill-represented membership. So too, the numbers of members in House of Lords is grossly disproportionate to its democratic functions and responsibilities. Adding more calumny to democracy is the fact that the House of Lords also admits the unelected bishops of the Church of England, the so-called “State Church” in a multi-faith society.
• It is widely considered that “democracy lies at the heart of the rule of law” and that a “democratic society” is one in which there is a functioning government that upholds human rights through a Parliament that is sovereign. The fact that, for many in the recent EU Referendum, the decision of the people was regarded as sovereign, and not the House of Representatives in Parliament, indicates that the British Constitution is minimally known. A major factor in this is that the British Constitution remains in an unwritten form.
Democracy permits representation of the people. Therefore, democracy requires an active citizenry that takes part in public life, is educated to so act in a politically responsible way and is sufficiently politically astute in order to avoid being manipulated. In this way, the citizenry’s freedom under the law of the land is maximized. It is to be understood that the “basic standards in political, social and economic rights are necessary to ensure that everyone can play a meaningful role in political life”.
For the above reasons it is fundamental that the British Constitution is in written form and can be made available to the perusal and understanding of everyone.
• Probably the most undemocratic institution in British life is the monarchy. The UK is a Constitutional Monarchy. This is a form of government in which “a non-elected monarch functions as the head of state within the limits of the constitution. Political power in a constitutional monarchy is shared between the monarch and an organized government such as the British Parliament”. Nevertheless, the people of the UK are often falsely regarded as the “subjects” of the monarch and not as “citizens” of the UK.
One constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor, has defined a constitutional monarch as “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule.” So, a constitutional monarch acts as a visible symbol of national unity, and the exercise of their powers are generally a formality, without the sovereign enacting personal political preferences.
In the UK, the monarch is determined through the hereditary line of the House of Windsor. However, it is not just the head of this house that is maintained by the British State, it is the whole extended family – who are given “royal” titles. Most of these “royals” at best have representational roles and little to do with the political and democratic functions of the British State. Moreover, none of this family have ever been elected to perform any form of role or function.
The above are a selection of aspects of British life that, as important as they are, do not function according to democratic principles, are matters of governance that have generally been avoided by successive British governments, and have never in modern times been the subject of a substantive people’s referendum. A list of such issues could include the perpetuation of an honours system that bestows awards based in ranks within the “British Empire”, e.g., MBE, OBE, as well as the role and function of the Church of England as the State Church of the British nation.
It is to be noted that most silence on the above-mentioned matters comes from those, politicians and media commentators included, who were most vocal about “democracy” being enacted through and determinative of the outcome of the 2016 British EU Referendum on membership of the EU. Surely the time has come for the citizens of the UK to be permitted to exercize their constitutional rights to determine the shape and outcome of each of these matters.
Democracy in the 21st century existence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demands nothing less.
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