Opinion: Why does democracy matter?
|22 August, 2016||Filled under Opinions||
Over the last two years, audiences at The Liverpool Salon have been discussing many of the questions that became central in the EU referendum debate. Our very first public event, Open Borders- who profits people discussed anxieties about rising levels of immigration in the light of Britain’s low wage economy and failing public services. Similarly, at Talking about Borders in the run up to the June referendum, audiences considered three different perspectives on Europe’s response to the migrant crisis up. The starting point for the latest Liverpool Salon, After the Referendum, where next was for people to take stock of the changed political reality, which followed Britain’s vote to leave the EU. In particular, to try and make sense of the depth of disaffection – between different sections of society and between large numbers of British people and their political institutions – which the vote had laid bare.
In the months leading up to the 24 June, there had been a sense that democratic politics might be coming back to life in Britain. With politicians out on the hustings and people arguing in living rooms, pubs and meeting halls, it seemed that politics might winning back its faded popular appeal. Once regarded as Britain’s top conversation killer, the question of EU membership was dividing people into warring camps of ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’. There was even a left wing anti EU movement , which true to form, had immediately split into rival factions of ‘Lexiteers’, ‘Boycotters’ and ‘Abstainers’. Running to keep up, politicians, media commentators, trade unionists and assorted members of the great and the good urged Britons to get their names onto the electoral register in order to ‘have your say on the future of Britain’s role in the EU’. Given the extremely low turn out among 18-24 year olds in the 2015 General Election, appeals for people to exercise their ‘hard won’ democratic rights were particularly targeted towards young voters. Even those with serious reservations about holding the referendum, like former Labour party spin doctor Alastair Campbell, urged fellow Remain campaigners to get stuck into the political contest by fighting ‘as hard as the other side intend to, which is very hard indeed’.
Large numbers of the electorate rose to the challenge. The Electoral Commission recorded an average 72% turn out with later polls suggesting much greater levels of particpation among young people than in the 2015 election and, among the over 70s, a record turn out of over 90%. So far, so democratic. However, as the night wore on and the results became clearer, the mood began to change. For many commentators, including those who had been most vocal urging people to ‘fight their corner’ and ‘have their say’, the vote was being re-imagined – no longer an exercise in democratic participation but an expression of mob ignorance and hatred. ‘EU law allows customers to withdraw from contract if contract based on lies. LEAVE agenda riddled with them. Lawyers on the case’, tweeted Alistair Campbell, less than twelve hours after the polling stations called. At the same time that Campbell was phoning his lawyers, Guardian columnist Gary Younge had made up his mind that the majority vote was no more than the effluence of a ‘toxic swamp of postcolonial nostalgia, xenophobia and general disaffection. Meanwhile, for Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (and discredited apologist for austerity) the vote was simply evidence, should anyone need it, that ‘the current international norm of simple majority rule is…a formula for chaos’.
On the very morning the result was called, before people had time to take stock of the changed situation, the chorus of dissent had risen to a full throated attack on the legitimacy of a democratic process, which had been debated, scrutinized and agreed in both Houses of Parliament and in which over 33 million people had participated only hours before. In an atmosphere of anger, fear and recrimination, with politicians in retreat from reality, there was a real sense of democracy unraveling. The theme for the next Liverpool Salon was clear: to look at the implications of the referendum vote and the reactions to it. This was not about staging a re-match for Leave and Remain. After all, whatever anyone might think about the result, we mostly agree that the problems Britain faces as a society did not suddenly arise on the morning of 24 June. After the Referendum – where to next? was an opportunity to take stock of where we are and where we are going as a society. What ideas do we defend and take with us? What challenges do we face? In the furious response to the vote, that the most pressing question that needed to be addressed was: why does democracy matter?
Liverpool Salon Convenor