A week after the country went to the polls, the dust from the referendum result steadfastly refuses to settle. The initial economic and constitutional convulsions continue to roll on, leadership ambitions are devouring the Conservative party and Labour seem desperate to do whatever they can to focus attention away from Tory in-fighting and onto their own attempts at self-annihilation.
So much for the great democratic revolution touted by the Leave campaign.
I say that not to suggest, like some, that the referendum result should be ignored, that Parliament should step in to save the British people from themselves, that the result simply shows that the electorate cannot be trusted to answer complicated questions. In short, I don’t think the chaos we are currently immersed in is a result of too much democracy.
Rather, I think the problem remains a lack of democracy: that is the over-riding feeling the experience of this referendum leaves me with. From start to (seemingly) endlessly-deferred finish, democracy has categorically not been at the centre of this process.
As we all know, an in-out referendum was promised by Cameron in a misguided attempt to outmanoeuvre Ukip and his own right-wing. The fact he was then able to call the referendum was due to the perversions of our antiquated electoral system delivering Cameron a Commons majority on 36.9% of the vote (representing less than a quarter of the electorate). So little ‘democracy’ evident in the run-up to the campaign.
Then we have the referendum itself. Without commenting on the quality (or lack thereof) of the campaign, the simple fact of attempting to distil a complex issue into a binary choice, presented as a ‘once in generation’, ‘no going back’ vote is, in my view, a parody of direct democracy. Again, I say this not because I think the public ‘can’t handle’ the complexity of the issue, but that public engagement with politics is distorted and degraded when direct participation is allowed only on such high-stakes, high-pressure occasions.
If more trust was placed in the public’s ability to make decisions, if direct democracy was more diffuse, more widely-used, then we could avoid this situation. If referenda were common place, a series of public votes could have been held to determine our relationship with Europe, treating the issue with the gravity it deserves and valuing the public and their ability to make informed decisions when given the opportunity.
A series of votes on separate issues like the free movement of labour, the single market and the issue of legal sovereignty could have averted the complete vacuum we currently find ourselves in, where no one can even define what ‘Brexit’ (I grimace while I type that odious neologism) would even look like, let alone how it will be achieved. And it may also have averted the perverse situation whereby dissident republicans in Foyle seeking to destabilise the UK in order to fuel their violent campaign for Irish unity voted on the same side as staunch Loyalists in North Antrim seeking to liberate the UK from the tyranny of the EU.
And now, the aftermath. 330 Conservative MPs and around 150,000 party members will decide who our next Prime Minister is, while the 231-strong Parliamentary Labour Party fight to bring down a leader elected by 250,000 party members and supporters. Little democracy here.
When I celebrated my 18th birthday on 15th February 2003 by marching in Belfast against the impending invasion of Iraq, the veteran left-winger (and now recently elected MLA for Foyle) Eamon McCann addressed the crowd outside City Hall with the words ‘this is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy feels like’. I was old and cynical enough to realise that the march, and the thousands other like them, would not avert the relentless drive to war. But I was young and idealistic enough to be charged by McCann’s words.
Now that we have plunged ourselves into a series of crises on the back of the Leave vote, I think more strongly than ever that calling for more democracy, not the sham we have just been presented with, is the best response: not to pour scorn on the ability of people to make political decisions, but to fight for their further empowerment, for better and more effective forms of democracy (both representative and direct), as the best strategy for avoiding fresh disaster on the back of a seemingly ‘democratic’ votes.