We need representative democracy, but when ultimate power is at stake, it is the people who must decide where it lies.
Unless you’ve spent the last twelve months with your fingers in your ears, you’ll know that the UK is about to have a referendum on its membership of the European Union. While the country is split on whether to vote Leave or Remain, public support for having the referendum was very high. Ed Miliband’s refusal to back the referendum likely played an important part in Labour losing the 2015 general election.
Not everyone however, is happy that this important dilemma is being decided by plebiscite. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins believes that the European Question should be decided by Parliament, and comedian David Mitchell agrees. Their arguments go to the heart of an important debate about the role of the general public in modern democracy.
We live in a representative democracy, and this is the crux of the Dawkins-Mitchell argument. We know that we’re not all experts on economics, healthcare, security, energy and so forth, and so we elect people who (supposedly) know better to make policy decisions on our behalf. We expect political parties to put forward a coherent and intelligent programme covering each policy area; we then vote for the programme we like best, and leave it to our representatives to implement the policies. The EU referendum, which puts the decision making power entirely in the hands of the electorate, appears to contradict this system. Hence, David Mitchell accuses David Cameron of failing as a leader, because he’s shirking his responsibility to make a decision on behalf of those who elected him.
There’s nothing wrong with representative democracy. Making every decision by plebiscite would not only be inadvisable, it would be impossible. In 2010, Gordon Brown’s government passed a record-breaking 3506 laws; obviously, having 3506 referenda in the space of one year would not have been feasible. Mitchell and Dawkins are also right that the average person is not an expert on most policy areas, and that we need knowledgeable economics spokespeople, environmental spokespeople, foreign policy spokespeople and so forth to put forward a coherent programme. This basic model is a perfectly sensible way to make decisions. Or rather, it is a perfectly sensible way to make some decisions.
Our membership of the EU is a special kind of decision, because it falls outside of the scope of normal Parliamentary politics: it is a constitutional decision. In a democracy, power resides ultimately with the demos. Our elected representatives work for us; we lend them our power at the general election, and we reserve the right to take it away at the next one. Our elected representatives should not have the right to “sub-let” that power; they shouldn’t have the right to give it away to another institution without our permission. Our membership of the modern European Union (as constituted by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and Lisbon Treaty in 2007) was a transfer of sovereign power away from our elected representatives. The electorate ought to be consulted whenever there is a suggestion that the power we have lent will be transferred.
This is entirely compatible with representative democracy. Within the scope of normal politics, it is the responsibility and the right of elected representatives to make decisions. But this normal politics relies upon a constitutional foundation, which itself depends on the consent of the governed to lend their power to the state. Granted, since the UK does not have a codified constitution, separating “normal” issues from “constitutional” issues is not straightforward, but transfers of power (such as those effected by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011) can serve as a proxy. For example, a referendum was justified on the question of Scottish independence because this would have resulted in a large transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood.
Not only is the EU referendum justified in principle, it brings a number of subsidiary benefits. British citizens today are notoriously disillusioned with politics and politicians, seeing their representatives as out-of-touch and their vote as invaluable in a disproportional voting system. This referendum is a breath of fresh air that has given every voter an opportunity to engage with politics. It’s true that the country is divided, parties are squabbling, and many voters are feeling confused and frustrated by the contradictory messages issuing from either side, but this is the first time in a long time that ordinary voters across the UK have had the opportunity to be so politically empowered.
There is a trend in Europe today towards the centralisation of power, within states as well as within the EU as a whole. The right to make important decisions in a number of areas has shifted from Westminster to Brussels and Strasbourg, and this trend will likely continue if Britain remains in the EU. The holding of this referendum sends a message to EU officials that the voice of the average person is still valued in Britain, and that we oppose the replacement of our representative democracy by a wholly unrepresentative technocracy. If we still believe that ultimate power resides with the people, we must allow the people to decide who gets to make use of that power.