Opinion: From Brexit to a democratic republic?
|30 July, 2016||Filled under Opinions||
In this opinion piece, the first in a series responding to the EU Referendum, Kevin Bean explores the possibly far reaching implications for British democracy of implementing the referendum result.
From reactions to Brexit to internal Tory and Labour leadership rows, conflicting ideas of democracy and the legitimate authority of mandates lie at the heart of many of the big political controversies of today. According to his supporters, Jeremy Corbyn’s authority as Labour leader derives from his election by party members. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s opponents in the Parliamentary Labour Party challenge his leadership by citing their mandate as MPs, ultimately responsible to the electorate as a whole rather than a narrow ‘selectorate’ of ‘activists’. Similarly, calls for a general election to give legitimacy to Theresa May’s premiership, following her ‘coronation’ as Tory leader, arise from the need to establish democratic accountability and electoral authority.
However, it is in the simmering disputes surrounding the triggering of article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that the question of ‘who rules’ is most starkly posed. Following the referendum, the then Prime Minister David Cameron pledged the government to respect the will of the majority and carry out Brexit. Similarly stating that the Opposition accepted the majority vote, Jeremy Corbyn urged the government not to delay in invoking article 50, the clause that will trigger the UK’s exit from the EU. However, Cameron’s resignation, the Labour Party’s leadership crisis and new Prime Minister Theresa May’s apparent reluctance to initiate the exit process have combined to create a sense of instability and political drift. As the mood of disaffection deepens between different regions and sections of society and between large numbers of British people and their political institutions, even leading Brexiteers seem reluctant to take the plunge and follow through on the referendum result. The political confusion that is emerging has given rise to an unprecedented wave of demonstrations, petitions and court cases, which seek to challenge, restrain or even overturn the will of the majority.
Some of the most obviously anti-democratic challenges state that the referendum result was too close or that the electorate was misinformed or simply incapable of understanding what they were voting for. However, whilst some of the arguments for delay and procrastination are clearly rooted in political calculation and economic caution, the more principled and therefore significant objections could be said to arise from a conception of democracy that is diametrically opposed to the idea of popular sovereignty expressed in the referendum itself. This different conception of democracy is at the root of the arguments advanced by ‘ordinary citizens’ like Deir Dos Santos, who are asking the Judiciary to check the power of the Executive, by ensuring that parliament is given a vote on whether or when to invoke article 50 .
The starting point for Dos Santos’ plea is the United Kingdom’s status as a parliamentary democracy, where, in its unwritten constitution, sovereignty does not reside in the demos but rather in a fiction called ‘Crown-in-Parliament’. Unlike states that have written constitutions, which explicitly state that sovereignty derives from the people (and whose constitutions, as in the case of the United States or the French Republic, have originated in popular revolutions), the United Kingdom has no such popular democratic foundation. While elected MPs constitute a democratic element, British practice stresses that they are representatives, not delegates, and have no duty to act on their constituents’ wishes (shades of the Labour Party debate here too!). Since sovereignty does not lie in any shape or form with the people of the United Kingdom, the referendum is, so the argument goes, effectively advisory and parliament, as a representative ‘democratic’ institution, has no constitutional obligation to act on its outcome at all. Accordingly, those who argue for a delay in implementing the referendum result (whether to protect the rights of citizens or defend the economic interests of big business) are simply upholding this traditional, elitist, but ‘right and proper’ constitutional view of ‘British democracy’. Those, on the other hand, who demand that Article 50 be triggered immediately are counter posing a very different conception of democracy, where authority is rooted in the popular sovereignty of the demos rather than in established conventions of the sovereignty of parliament. This radically different understanding of democracy trusts in the ultimate wisdom and judgement of the majority of the people and believes that it should not be subordinated to the ‘authority’ and superior knowledge of those who pretend to truly know our real intentions and claim to govern us in the national interest.
One of the reasons that the direct democracy of the referendum has rarely been used in the United Kingdom is precisely because of the challenge it raises to the elitist and restricted sovereignty of Crown-in-Parliament. In the words of former Tory Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, the referendum represents a de-stabilizing anomaly, providing ‘a dreadful precedent and unworkable way of settling complex and important questions which really should be decided by Parliament’ . In this sense, demands that the EU Referendum be upheld and implemented forthwith are not only democratic but revolutionary, because they assert a conception of popular sovereignty, rooted in the authority of the demos which is greater and more powerful that the stunted democracy of Crown-in-Parliament. Although dressed in the medieval flummery of monarchy and the invented traditions of centuries of gradual constitutional evolution, Britain’s constitutional anomalies have a real and vital contemporary resonance. Rooted in British history, the fictions of Crown-in-Parliament and the Royal Prerogative – essentially an executive power wielded by the Prime Minister – are products of a counter-revolutionary compromise that emerged from the defeat of the radical democrats during the English Revolution of the 1640s. The banner of Lilburne and the Levellers was taken up in later centuries by the truly noble struggles of democrats and revolutionaries, such as the Corresponding Societies in the 1790s, the Suffrage campaigners cut down at Peterloo in 1819, the Chartists in the 1840s and the Labour movement of the industrial revolution, who fought for real democracy against the narrow privileges and restricted freedoms of ‘the British Constitution’. We should remember that most of the democratic rights enjoyed in contemporary Britain were fought for and hard won in the face of the reactionary opposition and repression of an established order that upheld Crown-in-Parliament in the face of demands for real popular sovereignty. Our rights are not the gifts of an enlightened and beneficent ruling class, but rather the rewards of centuries of struggle and the militant assertion of democratic rights by millions of ordinary people.
It is this history that links demands for the immediate implementation article 50 to the assertion of popular sovereignty. But it is a history that calls on us to go much further than merely putting into effect the results of one referendum. If we wish to pose a genuinely alternative, democratic idea of popular sovereignty to correct the limitations of our current system we have to link the demand to ‘trigger article 50’ to calls for more and greater democracy and the completion of the tasks set by our democratic forebears. Successfully triggering article 50 as the result of a mass campaign would be but the first, if necessary, step to end the constitutional obscurantism of Crown-in-Parliament and replace it with a democratic republic which completes the work of the English Revolution and gives real power to the demos for the first time in British history.
Katie King, ‘Brexit Legal Challenges: Busiest court in living memory hears judges say case WILL be heard by Lord Chief Justice’. Legal Cheek, 19 July 2016.
 George Parker, ‘Ken Clarke to end near 50-year career as MP’. Financial Times. 19 June 2016,