The Remain Campaign and Democracy

By: Alex David

'Remain' campaigners before the EU Referendum

One issue that took centre stage in all of the coverage and debate surrounding the British exit from the EU was that of democracy. Prior to the vote, one of the Leave campaign’s biggest electoral draws was the idea that in the EU, we cannot ‘kick out our rulers’. The claim was that British parliamentary democracy was being superseded by autocrats in the EU. As such, the Leave campaign presented themselves as being pro-democracy. By extension, the Remain campaign were then portrayed as anti-democratic in their support of the EU. Boris Johnson even went as far to compare the EU to ‘Hitler and ‘Napoleon’, an insensitive parallel that is blind to history. Napoleon did not have elected members of parliament, as the EU does. Unlike the EU, Hitler famously did not have commissioners elected by the governments of the countries he invaded. This bizarre comparison of an economic and political treaty with two violent, conquering and autocratic forces is indicative of the fact that as with many facets of the Leave campaign, the EU and its democratic nature were being entirely misrepresented. However, that this democracy (misrepresented or not) became such a key part of the EU debate shone a spotlight on democracy itself.

When we did eventually vote to leave, many Leave campaigners up and down the country saw the result as not just a democratic victory, but a victory for democracy, fighting back against tyrannical dictators in Brussels. However, this brings several problems. In painting themselves as the sole arbiters of democracy, the Leave campaign have portrayed the Remain camp as undemocratic. Furthermore, in portraying democracy as an important part of patriotism, both directly opposed to the EU, the Leave campaign and its supporters make the Remain camp not only undemocratic, but also unpatriotic. This is most clearly shown in Farage’s simple claim that we have ‘taken our country back’; implying necessarily that the Remain campaign wanted to give the country away.

As a result, the Remain camp are increasingly portrayed by proponents of Brexit as being ‘undemocratic’. One thing that has compounded this is the petition to parliament to trigger a second EU referendum, seen by many as an undermining of the democratic decision to Leave. The ‘March for Europe’ on the weekend was portrayed in a similar manner – autocratic Remainers ironically using democracy to protest a democratic result. This objection has been raised on both the right and the left – this morning on Victoria Derbyshire, Ed Miliband argued against both the petition and protest as undemocratic. However, this is incorrect. It is in fact the case that the petitioning of parliament, and this protest, are greater displays of British democracy than the referendum itself.

This is because of the fact that British government is fundamentally a parliamentary democracy. Decisions, such as the decision to leave the EU, should be the responsibility of elected Members of Parliament. The country is not ruled by plebiscite; the only decisions put to the electorate are as to who should be elected. The few times that referenda are called are more often than not a political tactic rather than legitimate government. The EEC referendum in 1975 was to end the Labour split over Europe. The Scottish independence referendum in 2014 was to (unsuccessfully) quieten Scottish nationalists. The referendum in 2016 was almost a mirror to 1975, but this time, it was to try and mend a fracturing Conservative party. There are so few of these votes because the country cannot practically be ruled by holding referenda whenever there is an issue – it is the reason that we have a parliament. We should trust the people we elect to make the correct decisions. After all, if we do not like these decisions, we can (as Boris Johnson so pithily put it) ‘kick the buggers out’. It is for this reason that this petition to parliament is inherently democratic. In fact, in keeping with British parliamentary democracy, it is more aligned with British democracy than the referendum.

With regards to the ‘March for Europe’ protest, rather than arguing against the points of contention for this protest, a handful of people were calling for a halt for the demonstration - the Remain camp, some 16 million people, should hold their tongues on this vital issue. This is inherently undemocratic. Democracy is not the rule of the majority with disregard for the minority – each party must be considered. Again, this opposition to a democratic process is deeply ironic given the repeated claims that leaving the EU would increase sovereignty and thus democracy. This irony is furthered by the breakdown of British democracy post-Leave. The ruling party are entirely split, more focused on internal party politics than the day-to-day running of the country, something increasingly necessary in the turbulence post-Leave. With the Prime Minister stepping down, to be replaced with another Tory minister only voted in by 150,000 Conservative Party members (a number comparable with the population of Cambridge), we end up with a Prime Minister for whom almost nobody voted. It is almost comical that a vote for democracy should end with an unelected leader. Given that Jeremy Corbyn’s version of the Labour party offers no functional opposition we find ourselves with the SNP, a party who do not even want to be a part of Britain, giving the unofficial opposition in the British parliament. The state of British politics at the moment is dire, and the Remain camp’s contribution to this democracy through petition and protest, two fundamental pillars of democracy, cannot and should not be seen as undemocratic. With British democracy thrown into greater disarray than ever thanks to the EU referendum, it is questionable that Leave voters should be considered defenders of British democracy given its current state.
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