“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”
Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, 31 October 1944
Here Churchill effectively defines democracy at its heart as being about suffrage – the exercising of the right to vote. Few democrats (is that all of us?) would quibble with that and I don’t intend to. But voting is only part of democracy. The Oxford dictionary definition emphasises the point. Democracy is
“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”
There is more to democracy than adding up the little crosses of Churchill’s little men. Indeed as generally used “democracy” also incorporates human rights. Not (just) the right to vote but freedom of speech, of religion, to congregate – and so on. The guarantor of these rights is the “system of government”.
In Britain we often congratulate ourselves on the robustness of our democratic system. In 2016 that system included a Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and a year earlier we had a General Election which gave us a Conservative Government which instigated that plebiscite. The little men and women placed their little crosses on their ballot papers and that was that. Except that both elections were fundamentally flawed, and not for the first time.
In 2010 we had had a Coalition Government that nobody voted for. Now if our electoral system always created outcomes that required coalitions (as, for example, in The Netherlands) then there would be nothing remarkable about the 2010 coalition. But it doesn’t. First Past the Post usually gives one of the two major parties a majority. Serendipitously in 2010 this didn’t happen. We hadn’t had a coalition for seventy years but David Cameron formed one and it served a full term. That’s a pretty funny sort of democracy isn’t it? Even “funnier” is the disenfranchisement of our citizens. In 2015 two Parties – UKIP and the Green Party – got 16.4% of the national vote between them (5 million votes). But each party got just one seat in the 650 member House of Commons. Whatever your views of these two parties is you must accept that is hardly a democratic outcome.
The unfairness and lack of democratic basis of our electoral system is further illustrated by the fact that millions of votes just don’t count at all. In the safe Conservative seat of Surrey South West 40% of those who voted did not choose Jeremy Hunt. Not one of these votes counted nationally. In the safe Labour seat of Wigan 48% did not vote for Lisa Nandy. Likewise.
So what of the EU Referendum? That was democratic wasn’t it? A straightforward YES/NO choice and a clear result ? Well up to a point Lord Copper. The Oxford dictionary’s definition of Democracy, which includes “…typically through elected representatives” , is crucial here. Before 1975 Britain had been content with a Parliamentary Democracy but in similar circumstances to those faced by David Cameron Harold Wilson chose to ask the people to solve a Party problem for him. Wily Wilson won his gamble. Dodgy Dave did not. But both referendums ( and the few in between) were abrogations of our Parliamentary Democracy. It’s worth reminding ourselves how that works. Issues (often highly complex ones) are debated in Parliament and its members vote. The application of party whips distorts this a bit – members can be “whipped” to toe the party line which can conflict with their own consciences sometimes. But the system is pretty robust – especially when a “free” vote is permitted. And, thankfully, our parliamentarians are often prepared to defy the whips and vote with their consciences anyway!
To reduce an issue as important and complex as membership of the European Union to a binary choice, and to trust the electorate to make the decision, has all the superficial character of democracy. “The people’s choice” and all that. But, as we have seen, there is more to democracy than a head count alone. There have to be checks and balances and these come above all in Parliament. Had a member of the House of Commons made a speech in which they claimed that outside the EU we could save £350m a week and spend it on the NHS that member would have been challenged and held to account by other members. Misleading Parliament is a serious offence. In the grubby referendum campaign both sides lied continuously. And Members of Parliament have a duty to be honest and informed. It is easy to malign our politicians but in the main they discharge their duties honestly. Wouldn’t you rather have had a free vote in Parliament after a comprehensive debate with the decision being taken by the people we have chosen to represent us? That’s how we do things most of the time.
Churchill also famously said
“…It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
But the definition of what “democracy” actually is – which system is best and who votes for whom and how we count the votes and what happens next – that’s another matter. We have hybrid systems – Scotland, for example, has the First Past the Post system for UK general elections, the Additional Member System for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Single Transferable Vote system to elect local councils, and the Party List System is used for European Parliament elections. And, of course, a Referendum on independence.
My objection of the European Union referendum is not because I deplore the outcome – though I do. It is because it was, I believe, profoundly undemocratic. The wrong people taking the wrong decision by the wrong process and for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. Such events had no place in our democratic system for centuries and should have no place now. We are a Parliamentary Democracy. We need to make Parliament more representative of the people for sure and our electoral system needs reform. But referendums do the reverse, they weaken our democracy. No more please.