Some Thoughts on Democracy

Sir John Major has told us that the referendum vote should be classified as the “tyranny of the majority”. Other respectable politicians who disagree with the result have also questioned pure democracy as a proper method of conducting government, though most have, sensibly, not gone as far as Major in suggesting that a vote in favour of national sovereignty amounts to tyranny. I think it fair to say that the consensus opinion of what one might term “aggressive remainers” is that pure democracy is a bad thing, but Parliamentary democracy is quite good, because most MPs want us to be ruled by Brussels and that ties in with their own opinions.

Funnily enough, I have some sympathy with that view. On the whole, I think Parliamentary democracy cuts out the worst excesses of pure democracy (lynch mobs making law). Of course, being my father’s son, I don’t approach these things with a prejudice in favour of modern democracy in any form at all. I remember asking him why he wasn’t a member of the Reform Club. He told me he would find it impossible to sign the required declaration to the effect that he approved of the 1832 Reform Act. Some might say that that was taking objections to mob rule a little too far. But I could see his point. The 1832 Act was probably the thin end of the wedge.

Pure democracy would definitely be horrid. If every new law had to be passed by a referendum we would end up with government by tabloid newspapers. Alleged child molesters would be sentenced to death after trials in which they would be refused the right to defend themselves, and they would be given no right of appeal. Homosexuals would be sent to prison for life, unless they “reformed”. Anyone earning above the national average wage would be taxed at 99%. The economy would be ruined. Rationing would probably become necessary, but anyone considered “foreign” would be given smaller rations than the rest of us. Goodness, we would end up like Cuba, though Castro managed most of that without any democracy at all, and is apparently enormously admired by most western leaders.

No, I agree that pure democracy would be a very dangerous innovation. The thought of being governed, in effect, by semi-literate tabloid journalists is appalling. But does that mean that the electorate had no right to decide whether Parliament or Brussels should make our laws?. Is Sir John Major right to say that a vote for parliamentary sovereignty was necessarily a vote for tyranny? Are the other remainers right to say that only MPs are bright enough to decide questions of that sort?

It seems to me that it is rather a large leap to say that, because majorities can be tyrannical, it follows that the majority should never be allowed to decide anything at all. I do understand the remainers’ argument. They say they are much cleverer than mere voters, they understand that our economy will be a lot stronger if it is linked to the economies of Greece, Italy, Spain, Poland etc. They are obviously right, they claim, to think that the economy is vastly more important than dreary things like who makes our laws. They are in short, in a much better position to decide what is good for the UK than are uneducated voters. And they say, with some justification, that the people have elected a House of Commons which, on the whole, reckons we are better off being ruled by Brussels than by a British Parliament. Surely, their argument runs, the electorate can always sack all those Europhile MPs at the next general election if they really feel strongly about old-fashioned notions of Parliamentary sovereignty.

But the hole in the remainers’ case is that it was Parliament, packed with men and women who are convinced we should be governed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, which decided that the people should be permitted to decide the Big Question. Isn’t it slightly illogical to say, one day, that we uneducated masses should be allowed to decide whether we should be ruled by Parliament or by eurocrats and then, on the next day, announce that our decision should be rejected because it was democratic?

We must certainly be careful about all these referendums. It would be awful if we started having them on things like penal or economic policy. That would obviously be an invitation to the majority to be tyrannical. But we should also be wary of denouncing democracy in all its forms just because it produces results we don’t like. I know Sir John Major is furious about the EU referendum result. But his claim that it was tyrannical is obviously total nonsense. There is nothing wrong with proclaiming that the majority gets things wrong (I started on that route when I was 12 years old and the electorate chose Harold Wilson as Prime Minister). But that is not a reason for giving up on democracy in its entirety.

Charles

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Democracy

  1. Very nicely balanced opinions as usual, Charles. Very tricky to get the balance right as regards what sort of democracy works best.

    I think I would shudder too at the idea of government by media, although government by social media would be even more frightening.

    Tyranny of the majority does make some sense in that most democracies worthy of the name do try to ensure that minority rights are respected if they do not impact on the rights of the majority of citizens.

    One often reads the complaint that our governments do not listen. This can sometimes be a Good Thing: to whom should they listen? Those you mention in your third paragraph above? Like you I’m not keen on law by referendum- it should rarely be necessary, and considering the fall-out from the last one, and the one to supposedly settle the Scottish question, the results are invariably described by the losers as undemocratic. Best avoided, I think.

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  2. I think the word ‘tyranny’ in this context is accurate, though misleading.

    In an election where, for the sake of argument, Parliament is split 52% to 48% between two parties (this is a hypothetical situation) you would end up with a degree of compromise because within that 52% not all would be in complete disagreement with the rest of their party.

    In other words, although one party won with 52% the party with 48% will still have a significant effect on how the country is governed and would temper the worse tendencies of the party in power. And that is exactly as it should be. Parliament must represent all the people and not just those who voted for the party that won the election.

    With Brexit, however, the Leavers appear to be saying that it’s all a done deal. Their side won and the UK will leave the EU regardless of long, medium, and short term costs and there will be no compromise on timing or on the manner of the UK leaving. In that respect it is a tyranny of the majority because they would deny the 48% any input into the process.

    The true meaning of the 52%/48% divide is that on that particular day we wanted to leave the EU, but only by just a little bit. It’s not a vote to turn our back on Europe and rekindle the long extinct embers of our trading relations with the commonwealth, nor is it a vote to make Britain Great again (the Great in Great Britain only being there to distinguish us from Little Britain, or Brittany) or anything else that the Leavers claim it to be. It’s a tepid, almost indifferent response, a “yeah, okay, but I might not like it” response that really cannot be taken at face value.

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      • No, surely it was Magna Carta.

        I would subscribe to a meritocratic system where a vote and a passport were awarded to those who can pass a reasonably stringent exam in social, political, and economic history, along with science, sociology, arts and culture, but would not accept a system that only allowed a vote to property owning males.

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    • It is one of the odd things about the EU that it has always spurned democracy. Yes, there is a directly elected European Parliament, but its powers are minimal. I suppose you could say that the Council of Ministers is vaguely democratic, because most ministers (though certainly not all) have been elected by their own countries. But then we have the Commission (which makes an enormous number of our laws). There is nothing democratic about the Commission. It is entirely made up of bureaucrats.

      I have always been bemused by the stubborn refusal of the EU to adopt democracy. It seems to me that, had it done so, it would have avoided many of the criticisms made by its opponents. Very odd.

      Charles

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