As we have learned from issues surrounding Brexit, the UK’s recent obsession with direct democracy is unhealthy. For the sake of stability, we must return to a strong parliamentary, representative democracy.
With recent news that MPs will have a vote on whether to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, many on the Brexit side are up in arms. With Nigel Farage planning to lead a march against the Supreme Court and newspapers like the Telegraph calling for the decision to be overturned, it could be said this is the most important Brexit development since the vote. It is not. It is relatively unlikely MPs will completely vote to block Brexit. Though the majority of MPs opposed Brexit, the majority of constituencies backed Brexit. Far more important was the news about the UK’s lack of skilled negotiators, and research from an independent group of academics which sets out the very complexity of negotiationg Brexit – yet neither of these stories achieved nearly the same level of public outcry or opposition on social media.
There is a huge fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of politics fuelling the sudden increase in the use of referendums since 1997. The government does not govern based on key decision by key decision. The largest body of parliamentary work is not on major manifesto areas such as Brexit or austerity. Though austerity was promised by the Conservative Party, people in 2015 did not vote for spending on the Regional Growth Fund, the introduction of a Joint-Fraud taskforce or an additional £3.2 million funding for victims of domestic abuse. Looking at research briefings shows the nature of parliamentary work. From mobile phones to by-elections, parliament is constantly at work on a variety of issues. Whether a Labour or Conservative Party is in power, it will not change the nature of the role of select committees, the nature of debates, oral evidence sessions and the work of many MPs in their own constituencies.
The success of Brexit will not simply be down to whether it is happening. Its success will depend highly on the technicality of any deals; the skill of our negotiators and the very nature of diplomacy with the EU. For instance, it was not simply Brexit itself that led to the the bounce-back the UK economy saw after the June referendum. It was the “timely, comprehensive and concrete action” taken by the Bank of England. The very success of any government lies very much in “how” as opposed to “what”.
The problem with direct democracy is therefore clear. Referendums are posed to us as “yes” or “no”. With Brexit, once the referendum campaigns began, the debate became about the benefits and disadvantages of Brexit even though “Brexit” in itself could mean a range of things from a “hard”, total withdrawal from the EU’s single market to remaining as close as possible to membership of the EU in a “soft” Brexit. Referendums are inherently reductionist. The two opposing sides of a referendum may care whether the electorate is being informed, but they most certainly care more whether they will be voted for, therefore they pander to the public by focusing on the “what” rather than the “how”.
We were told “Brexit” would solve the problem of immigration, or that “Brexit” was inherently full of serious dangers to the UK economy. The Out campaign lacked detail entirely, and on the few occasions Stronger In did mention the “uncertainty” over what Brexit meant, it was slammed as fearmongering. However same campaign claimed Brexit would cost £4300 per household. For Stronger In to admit uncertainty yet also make ridiculous sweeping claims equally shows the complete lack of consideration for the differences in what Brexit could mean from both sides.
Parliamentary discussion on Brexit would have likely been very different. Where Vote Leave argued to the electorate that the EU restricts parliamentary sovereignty, who has a better understanding of exactly how it impacts the democratic process than our MPs? When David Cameron appeased Stronger In supporters with a quickly-made deal aimed at merely showing the EU could be “reformed”, a parliamentary discussion would have seen the fine print debated in greater detail – which is far more important than the headline agreements.
Under direct democracy, once the mandate is given by the electorate themselves then the government is expected to meet what the electorate thinks is right. There will be no public outcry at the lack of skilled negotiators, yet many are passionate about the government responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling to maintain the longstanding principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Governments want to stay in power and the Conservative Party is no exception. Therefore there is less of an obligation to prioritise the very workings of Brexit as if it were a parliamentary matter. Not only do we see a reduction in the quality of decision-making, but accountability is lost. If Brexit results in total economic downturn, much of the responsibility will be seen to lie not with the government or our negotiators, but with Brexit. Yet it is more than likely that the success of Brexit will lie in the specifics, and the success of the economy always lies in the technicalities of any future economic decisions. There may be widespread disenfranchisement over our representatives, yet a greater reliance on referendums only decreases the need for them to be competent.
As informed as some may be, the average citizen is not reading the minutiae of government policy. Policies and the role of government are seen far too broadly, and with a view that is disjointed from the way government and parliament actually function. Where we leave issues to parliament, we are more able to hold them to account. Whatever is agreed in parliament was not agreed to win a referendum result, and there would be higher levels of scrutiny and debate on the “how” as opposed to the “what”. The success of any policy is closely linked to the competence of our representatives. We must lose our idealist obsession with direct democracy and return to a strong representative demoracy; not only do we face worse decisions being made, but we pose a risk to the very stability of the UK.