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Making sense of democracy

The UK is in a major constitutional crisis and at the heart of the crisis are big questions about what constitutes democracy. 

In the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union a majority of 3.8% voted to leave the EU. Subsequently, the Conservative Government led by Theresa May negotiated with the EU the terms on which the result of the referendum would be fulfilled. Three times a majority of MPs rejected those terms and eventually Mrs. May resigned and was replaced by Boris Johnson who is committed to leaving the EU on 31st October with or without a deal. He in turn is opposed by a majority of MPs who have passed an Act of Parliament to compel him to seek an extension to the date for withdrawal to give time for further negotiations with the EU.

This prompts questions about the meaning of democracy. Do we have direct democracy in which the voters determine what the Government does or representative democracy in which our elected representatives decide on our behalf? Obviously, advocates of Brexit argue that they have a duty to fulfil the people’s wishes whilst their opponents claim to be seeking what is best for the nation. Both claims need to be examined closely.

First, how well informed were the voters in 2016 about the possible consequences of any terms for leaving the EU. Who in 2016 considered the implications for Northern Ireland of a hard border with the Irish Republic? All borders between the EU and its non-EU neighbours have such controls and to not have them would jeopardize the integrity of the Common Market. Were the voters made aware of this?

Second, whilst the UK voted to leave the EU (51.9% to 48.1%) with a turnout of 72%, a significant majority of voters in Northern Ireland (55.8%) and Scotland (62%) voted to remain in the EU. To what extent did the voters take account of the possibility that Brexit could lead to the breakup of the UK? The answer is probably very few because in 2014 55.3% of Scots voted in a referendum against seeking independence from the UK. Polls now show that a majority want to leave the UK because they want to remain in the EU.

Third, whilst the EU has many faults well informed observers are concerned about the damage that a no-deal Brexit might cause to our national security and effective policing, to our economy, business, trade and the job security of up to half a million people, especially our farmers.

Fourth, some would go further and question whether the nationalist motives of the Brexiteers are appropriate in the 21st century when the big issues of climate change, population migrations into Europe, international crime syndicates and Russian expansionism, call for collective collaboration.

The point here is not to make a case against leaving the EU but to explore how we make our democracy work. If we want more democracy in which the voters have a bigger role in decision- making we will have not only to be given a lot more information but also the ability to understand that information. Second, voters will need experience to cope with democratic debates, learning to listen to those who take a different view and be open to compromises where that is necessary. Our elected MPs have to do that all the time, making and defending their points of view in public debates. They work together in cross-party Select Committees and have to listen to their opponents before reaching a conclusion. This is democracy at work.

If we want more direct democracy we, the electors need to learn how to do democracy or leave it to those we elect to do it for us.

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