Write up: ‘After the referendum, where next for democracy?’
|3 September, 2016
|Filled under Opinions
The starting point for the dicussion was to take stock of the changed political reality, which has followed Britain’s vote to leave the EU. In particular, to try and make sense of the disaffection – between different sections of society and between large numbers of British people and their political institutions – which that decision has laid bare. John opened by observing how difficult it was to make sense of the referendum by simply analysing voting patterns – between old and young, different regions and social classes. John asked us to think instead about the undemocratic nature of the European Union, with its powers to make laws and enforce them in all the countries of the Union and its intentions towards ever greater union and ever greater power for its institutions. His argument could be summarised quite simply: the EU is undemocratic and democracy matters:
“Why is it undemocratic? Because it makes laws that are directly effective in this jurisdiction, in the UK’……that is to say that the Prime Ministers of the twenty-eight countries decide what becomes the law. Now you might say that gives a certain protection to national sovereignty. But what it doesn’t do is give protection to the popular sovereignty of the people in each of the twenty-eight countries. The prime minister can decide away from the scrutiny, control and accountability of the populations of their own countries what the law will be. And at the heart of it, that is what is undemocratic about the European Union. It allows laws to be made, on the say of the prime minister or leading political figures of each country of the twenty-eight, without being discussed fully in the parliamentary process that exists in this and in other countries.”
In other words, the EU is an institution that is not in and of itself democratic and which offends the idea that a people who live in a country should be able to live under a government of their own choosing. John referred to Lord Ashcroft’s analysis of the referendum vote which suggests that a much larger proportion of Leave voters were motivated by a belief that ‘decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’: 49% against 33% who said they were motivated by a desire to regain control over immigration and borders (33%). On the question immigration, John pointed out that EU citizens’ rights to free movement among all EU member states are guaranteed by EU law and cannot be denied by any one of the twenty-eight states. As someone who works in the field of immigration and asylum law, John went on to argue:
“I would like there to be free movement of people but I don’t want to impose that on other people. I don’t want to get what I want by short-circuiting discussions and arguments with my fellow citizens about that decision. It’s wrong in principle and it won’t work in practice, because it won’t be accepted and it hasn’t been accepted. The 33% of people who said immigration was their concern are entitled to have that concern. And they should not be branded as racists and xenophobes for having that concern. There may be people who are racist and xenophobes, but the vast majority of people who are concerned about immigration, for right or wrong reasons, as I might see it, are entitled to have those concerns about immigration and they are certainly entitled to be consulted through a democratic process about the imposition of laws on that matter. But they were not and they are not.”
Why does democracy matter? John argued that more than a technical process for organising a government, democracy is important because it’s about freedom for the individual not to be unduly constrained and for the collective to be able to determine their own future by choosing their own government. And in the delegation of law making by this country to the EU, in the delegation of law making to the courts of the EU or indeed other international bodies we see a distancing of people from the decision making process in which they don’t have the opportunity to participate.
John closed by talking about the situation the referendum decision has created, arguing that people should use the opportunity to continue to assert greater control and become more involved in political decision making. In his view, Article 50 was going to be invoked, though not as quickly as it should be and probably with all sorts of ‘fudging’. However, the government clearly intends to go ahead and this step forces the discussion around the terms on which we leave, which in turn opens up opportunities to discuss the terms upon which we want to live. And these discussions will have to take place in the British parliament. So, while there are dangers that the government will try to push back on the vote by coming up with a ‘fudge’, it’s important to look at the opportunities we have to talk to each other – both Leave and Remain people – about the political arrangements under which we want to live. We have to take the opportunity and take it quickly and with determination because the forces that are bearing down on us are trying to retrieve the situation. They are trying to ‘get back to normal’ and that’s why in this process as we wait until 50 is invoked and wait to see what the terms of the new arrangements are, there are many people hoping to get back to something like the situation there was before.
Comments and questions from the floor:
“You talk about democracy and self-determination as if the nation state was the only thing that we have. However many people argue that – in the contemporary world – it would be better for a bigger unit of self-determination to exist. By historical comparison, just as nation states formed out of regions, is there not a basis for a bigger European polity, based on the commonalities of culture and economic organisation? So I’d be interested to hear your views on that, because it seems to me that in just setting up the nation state and saying this is what we have – well, is it? Is it possible that there might be a European demos? And if you’d been in Germany or Italy in the nineteenth century, and people had said we would like a united Italian state or a united German state, or you’d been in Scotland or England before the Act of Union? Would you have said, it’s never going to happen because we are too radically different? In other words I want to know why this fixation with the nation state. Particularly as, one of the things that seems to have come up in the referendum campaign, is that whatever state the UK is, it’s not quite a nation state.”
“Given your points about democracy, could there not be an argument – like the arguments you hear in the Basque country, Catalonia and Scotland – that real democracy should be at an lower level. In other words, your arguments, as applied to the EU could for example apply to Scotland or even to Cornwall. Is the nation-state just a habit? Is it something we’ve just arrived at, at this stage in the twenty first century, but in fact it could go in all sorts of ways. So why limit ourselves to the nation state? And why I raise this is, because you quite correctly touched on the basis of political organisation, and the idea of the demos and our relation to one another. You know, what holds a political community together? And it’s very clear that in the UK there are really quite disparate elements that seem to be flying apart. So I wonder what you think holds us together other than custom and practice. And if the UK is just a utilitarian union then why not have another utilitarian union with other parts of Europe?”
“I am just going to say something about my observations of people since the referendum. And there seem to have been two kinds: pessimistic people, who have been really upset and traumatised by the result and optimists. And the pessimists talk about the rise in hate crime and how young people have been sold out by older – bigoted – people and how we are definitely going to have a recession next year and people voted with complete ignorance and believed the campaigners lies; and the politicians are just trying to get power for themselves. Then the optimist’s view – and I’m going to put you into that group – sees the vote as a great victory for democracy which opens up opportunities for us to go forward. And I sort of like that story better. I did vote leave. And I felt quite happy when I woke up on 24 June and felt a bit shocked when I went into work and saw so many people upset by it. But I think these two groups, the optimists and the pessimists, have become a minority and that the vast majority of people kind of, voted one way or the other, but didn’t care much about it; they were just given this decision to make. And I’ve asked people why they voted the way they did, and some voted leave and some remain, but they often seemed to be for technical reasons. Very few people, it seems to me voted for the reasons the campaigns told them to vote. They gave lots of different reasons, but mostly very private reasons. So all I’m saying is that, I think the pessimists and the optimists may both be deluded, because most people are private about their politics and also believe that experts and the politicians will just continue do whatever they want to do. They are very sceptical about what the politicians are going to do. And that’s just par for the course. And people care much more about their private lives, their identities, rather than politics in a public sense. So what is going to galvanise people? There is no Left. Maybe I’m just too cynical, but I just don’t see where change is going to come from, because people just are so disconnected from politics.”
“I was really interested in hearing what you had to say about the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice, because it was always my feeling that the European Court of Human Rights was that extra protection for people and that many cases that had failed in the UK could go to the European Court of Human Rights. And be heard there and that’s one of my concerns about leaving the EU, that we won’t have that extra protection. I take on that the British have a great history in formulating human rights and Magna Carta, and the European convention on Human Rights was very much formulated by the British. But I am concerned that coming out of the EU we won’t have that protection because Britain won’t always have sensible leaders who uphold human rights and that is one of my concerns. And the other thing is about democracy. You saying we won’t be able to, well I am always lobbying my MP and that will continue. What role do MEPs have? Because we can lobby MEPs, so what influence do they have on the making of laws in Europe? And can we not have our democratic right upheld by lobbying our MEPs?”
“In this second decade of the twentieth century, we’ve seen massive challenges throughout the world and attempts to re-interpret democracy, in a global situation where people can’t see any political alternative and there are no alternatives being put forward. The uprisings in Turkey represented a challenge to the establishment but also an attempt to redefine what democracy is – it’s no longer about numbers of people voting on a particular policy or manifesto but numbers of people coming out onto the streets. Democracy without elections. And it’s very unstable. The Occupy movement was a big deal for quite a long time, but it doesn’t seem to exist anymore, and it hasn’t achieved anything and yet it promised so much to so many people. And if we think about this referendum in that context, what makes it so special, and probably, I would say in this day and age almost revolutionary, is that the British have taken it upon themselves to make an anti establishment stance but have used democracy with elections to deliver it. And this day and age, that is quite incredible that the British electorate have exercised democracy in the way we historically understand it: through elections. Where other expressions of democracy that we’ve recently seen have been democracy without elections. And I think that’s important because the democracy without elections that we’ve seen in Russia and Turkey and in the Occupy aren’t delivering. And I’m wondering, does Brexit show that the only way that democracy can work is actually through elections, or through referenda which channel the collective voice of the people, rather than having a mass of the people out on the streets?”
“I’m one of these people, where almost everybody I know voted Remain and would say to me, you know, you are the only person I know who voted Leave. But you’re not racist like all those other people! I just feel very pessimistic because I’d love to be getting into a debate with people about how the British Bill of Rights is so much better than the European version. But people seem to be a million miles away from being able to have any kind of a political discussion. And so many people are just moping over the result and blaming everybody and not in any kind of a receptive mood to talk about politics. And that is pretty much everybody I know, which find depressing. And someone said something along the lines of there’s no Left out there, but I think there is almost no Right out there either. A couple of things I’ve been reading recently are the House of Commons Select reports on BHS and Sports Direct. And they make very interesting reading. The BHS report in particular reads like a fairy story about an evil Baron who did all these nasty things. And the people on the Select Committee seem no longer able to accept that capitalism is about making profits. And some of these are Tory ministers who’ve been fund managers who know exactly what the world is like. But they are writing reports saying, people should just be a bit nicer to each other and you shouldn’t be treating your workers like that, you should be a bit nicer to them. And it’s like the Ruling Class, if we can talk in those old fashioned terms, have become a class in themselves but not for themselves. To me, when both classes don’t engage in politics, that’s really difficult. And its not just a difficulty in terms of writing stupid reports. The real difficulty is Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, who rips up the Bank’s independence and lines up absolutely square behind Project Fear and has now painted himself into a corner where he has to pretend we are facing the end of the world. And he is introducing massive new levels of quantitative easing, buying bonds like there is no tomorrow and forcing down interest rates in a way that is massively detrimental to the UK economy. And he can’t do anything else. It almost worries me more that the ruling class have forgotten how to rule than it worries me that ordinary working people have forgotten how to oppose that rule.”
“Since the referendum, on a very simple basis, I feel that the vast majority of voters voted on what they perceived as their financial self-interest. With a small percentage of one side loving the idea of being in the European Union and a small percentage of the other side actually being offensive and bigoted people. And the bigger chunk in the middle, saying I voting – one way or another – for what is best for me. Full stop. And I’m not quite sure if there is anything more to it at all. What’s it got to do with democracy? I think most of the people who voted either way would listen to this and say, what are you on about?”
“It seems to me that while you made some very critical comments about the EU, and many of your points were good ones, your discourse was very EU centred. I don’t know if anybody else saw the TV programme on Tuesday, but one of the things that came out of that was that a lot of working class people were not interested in the EU at all, because their gripe was much more about London and the establishment. They felt that they were people who had been left behind and that London and the Home Counties had raced ahead. However they understood that politics didn’t relate to the lives they were leading. And one woman said: ‘we have now spoken, will we be listened to?” And I think that is important because for the last thirty, forty years to say nothing of earlier the gulf in the country has widened between different the regions and different areas of wealth. But one of the odd things about this, is people in Sunderland voted Leave because they are anti London and 120 miles to the North West in Glasgow they voted Remain for the same reason. Whereas in London, some of the Boroughs voted 75% Remain, including Brent, Camden, Kilburn and Wandsworth, which are not at all well off by any manner of means. What’s going on here? It seems to me a huge tearing apart of the country between the places that feel that they are on the wave of the future and people who feel that whatever waves have happened in the last forty years have passed them by. And that’s partly an age thing. And these are often older people voting Leave. But it’s partly about social class. And I don’t know, whether or not we are in the EU, how we can tackle that. But it does seem to me to be a very critical thing, which we ought to be discussing.”
“Especially in my age group, as a Leave voter, I quickly found myself alone in my group. I don’t necessarily like voicing my opinion in front of loads of people. Now ironically, simply everyone in my group says everyone’s a bigot on the Leave team and I’m just sitting there on the Internet seething in my boots because I want to say something but I know I can’t. These types of groups of people – not necessarily groups – people my age but people who have such extreme points of view linked to the Left, the dialectical and aggressive Left, they seem to generalise based on labels. And I don’t like labels because I think they make it easier for people to sweep other people’s arguments aside. And I felt the moment I’d say something I’d be dismissed. And actually responding to what someone said about MEPs and whether we could lobby MEPs, I’ve been doing a lot of research and I’ve found that levels of voting in European elections have fallen since 2009. And this puts democracy in a weak position why I don’t like the EU. Even though we are in the EU, we are not taking part democratically and not getting what’s better for our country. And this affects democracy at home. People don’t know what to vote for, because there is no political discussion at home. And even though there was as a 72% turnout in the EU referendum, I think people often had their own ill-formed opinions about why they should or shouldn’t leave the EU. I am not trying to say that people are uniformed, only that presented with this decision, they didn’t feel strongly either way because they hadn’t really thought about it. There were many people who did feel strongly, but far more people in the middle saying, I can see good arguments here and there but on balance I’m going with Leave or Remain. What I’m thinking is a lot of people can’t see the difference between the parties in General Elections and don’t bother to vote so in that sense their opinions aren’t fully formed.”
Follow this link for film extract of the event.