A People’s Vote: Upholding Democracy Or Undermining It?
Updated: Aug 22
Monday 26 November 2018, House of Common
In Committee Room 15 of the House of Commons last night I was triggered, by a Remainer, with a Brexit analogy about mobile phone contracts. I will try to explain. I attended a debate at the House of Commons, which was about whether a people’s vote would enhance or undermine democracy. One of the panel speakers, a Remainer, argued that a people’s vote was essential for democracy because it gave people more choice. As I tell students when I go to secondary schools, she explained, when you take out a mobile phone contract you have the chance to change your mind before signing. You might take a look at the deal and reason that the deal is not for you.
Brexit is the same apparently. The Remainer logic works like this: there was an initial decision to leave the EU, but now, with the benefit of the details, there is an opportunity for the Leave voters to change their mind. Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind, Mr Leaver? Have another go. We can have as many goes at this as you need. Until you get it right.
In case you were in any doubt that the Brexit vote was final, David Cameron made it clear.
No one should have to do this, but this is why the mobile analogy is clearly a very poor piece of logic in arguing for a new vote, which is tantamount to a second referendum. When you walk into an O2 store or similar and ask for a mobile phone your decision does not affect anyone else. Buying a phone also does not require anyone else’s opinion. The consumer is the dictator over his or her own purchase. Also, the nature of consumerism is that each phone deal can be bespoke to the buyer and the buyer’s needs. Purchasing a consumer item is a very bad analogy for voting in a referendum where the choice is binary. After all, no democratic vote can be tailored to the individual requirements of one person; democracy is about the majority view. Further, when making a decision on a ballot paper it is not feasible to have a 14 day cooling off period: your decision is final until the next vote, should there be one, and only after the first one has been fully actioned. In case you were in any doubt that the Brexit vote was final, David Cameron made it clear.
Still, it is perhaps telling that this Remainer, on the panel of the debate, struggled to identify the differences between a democratic vote and updating a smartphone. After all, we are all customers now and the customer is always right. We are encouraged to play the belligerent consumer. Therefore, when finding ourselves in the minority after a democratic vote, instead of exercising humility, the default response is to stamp one’s feet and, using the nuanced debating skills attained at university, start making the most bizarre arguments with passion and verve. Give me my money back becomes give me my vote again. In a move coined by the greater debater himself, Tony Blair, style trumps content. Open your mouth, make a noise, raise the volume, ask a rhetorical question and pause for applause: what difference does it make what your point is?
For the record, I have never found myself on the ‘winning side’ of a democratic vote. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which are my own fault. For instance, when first eligible, I voted Liberal Democrat, a move unlikely to place you on the winning side. Then I became geographically drawn to safe Conservative seats in suburban areas where the local opposition voters were about as common a sight as a bathing otter. Then I voted in favour of the Alternative Vote, despite being told it was too complicated to understand. When it came to Brexit, I voted Remain partly because I couldn’t see how the risks of leaving would be balanced by benefits, and partly because I once liked a girl in sixth form called Romaine, and I’m nothing if not loyal.
It is like Gareth Southgate arguing that the world cup semi-final should be replayed for the sake of football.
The point is, when you find yourself on the losing side of a vote, and you still hold democratic principles, you accept that it is just tough. Arguing that the other voters were unclear about their intentions, or that a best of three would be fairer, looks like exactly what it is: sour grapes. There are now a core number of Remain voters who have set up well-funded campaign groups, with names like OFOC, who are arguing that voting down a democratic vote strengthens democracy. It is like Gareth Southgate arguing that the world cup semi-final should be replayed for the sake of football. The so-called People’s Vote is anyway a means of marginalising anyone who voted Brexit. What will it say on the ballot paper? Do you accept Theresa May’s Brexit deal? Answer yes to this and you end up still in the EU, with jurisdiction still located in Brussels. Answer no to this and you are essentially voting Remain; no to Theresa May means no to Brexit.
Here’s an analogy of my own. The people’s vote campaigners are the termites gnawing away on the trunk of democracy. They are using democracy to undermine democracy. In the name of ‘the people’ they are responding to the 2016 referendum by saying, ‘wrong answer, try again’. And most of them are young enough to regret this decision if it proves successful. When they wake up in a post democratic world, they might lament a society which ignores other democratic principles: innocent until proven guilty, the right to free assembly and the principle that an election carries a mandate. Good luck in that world.
Credit to Webroots Democracy for their organisation of the debate including a diverse panel.