I’ve mostly avoided writing about Brexit, as it’s a pretty depressing situation. There are many aspects of this issue that I find frustrating, but something I find particularly irritating is when politicians claim that not leaving the EU would be some kind of threat to our democracy. The suggestion is that the people have spoken and our democratic principles require that we enact the will of the people.
One immediate problem is that the referendum was advisory, not binding. On top of that, the leave vote may have won the referendum, but it’s wasn’t exactly a resounding victory. The result was 52% (17,410,742) in favour of leaving, while 48% (16,141,241) voted to remain. The turnout was 72%, so almost 13 million people didn’t even vote. The idea that our democracy requires fundamentally changing the nature of our country because 37% of the electorate voted for something seems a bit much, especially given that 35% voted against this, and 28% didn’t even bother voting at all.
In fact, if you go the 2015 election manifestos, only one party (UKIP) explicitly campaigned on the basis of leaving the EU. The UK is a parliamentary democracy; the party that wins the most seats typically forms a government and tries to enact their preferred policies. If we like the way they’re running the country we can vote for them again at the next election. If not, we can vote for a different party.
UKIP has only ever had one member of parliament. We’ve essentially allowed a political party with virtually no parliamentary representation to shape the future of the UK. This seems like a much greater violation of our democractic principles than parliament deciding that it can’t enact the referendum result in a way that doesn’t do much more harm than good, especially given that making decisions on our behalf is why they were elected in the first place.
I realise that most of the “threat to democracy” rhetoric is hyperbolic, but I still find it irritating, especially coming from those who are embedded in our democractic process. I realise that many people are not going to be happy if we do stay in the EU, but a similar number (maybe even more) are going to be very unhappy about leaving. I also realise that staying in the EU will be politically very difficult. This doesn’t mean, however, that parliament deciding to do so will be some kind of fundamental threat to our democracy.