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The challenges of democracy

Theresa May’s decision to call a general election despite the constraints of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 is said to be to about making democracy work. The 2016 referendum produced a popular vote of 52%: 48% for Brexit so why did she need to consult the voters again so soon?

Her argument is that even though the House of Commons had voted for triggering Article 50 to empower her to negotiate with the EU there were saboteurs in Parliament doing their best to frustrate her, including the Remainers in her own party.

There are a number of difficulties with this reason. First, most of these Remainers have accepted the voters’ decision but are concerned that she negotiates to keep access to the EU single market rather than accepts a ‘hard Brexit’ which precludes that. The referendum included no details about the terms the voters expected her to deliver. UKIP and Conservative right wingers accept a ‘hard Brexit’ and want a total separation from the EU but her more centrist backbenchers and most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs want continued access to European markets and other areas of collaboration with the EU.  They argue the voters expressed no opinion on these matters, leaving them legitimate grounds for seeking a ‘soft Brexit’ in their constituents’ interests. Nobody voted to lose their jobs and it is arguably in the national interest to secure the best deal for Britain even if it requires some compromises.

Underlying this difference about what Brexit actually means is a constitutional debate about the real meaning of democracy. Are MPs in Parliament to do the expressed will of the voters or to seek their best interests as the MPs understand them? This question was posed by the 18th century philosopher and MP Edmund Burke who chose the latter answer. To advocate the former would require both a much more educated electorate and a more sophisticated electoral process. At no point did either side of the 2016 referendum enable the voters to express detail instructions for the Government to follow. It follows that Theresa May’s description of MPs who disagree with her understanding of the referendum outcome as ‘saboteurs’ is unreasonable and unfair.

The discussion is further complicated by the fact that the official Opposition seems likely to fight the June election, not on the details of the Brexit negotiations but on what they see as the failures of the Conservative Government – the state of the NHS, the crisis in social care, the cuts in school budgets and other austerity measures as well as their failure to eradicate the budget deficit those measures were intended to achieve. The Scottish Nationalists will campaign to obtain such an overwhelming majority north of the border that a second independence referendum becomes undeniable. This confusion of campaign objectives means that the party that wins most seats in the new Parliament will be given no clear guidance as to the will of the people on their Brexit negotiations. Nor will there be sufficient time before June 8th to equip the electorate to make careful judgements about what they want Brexit to mean in detailed terms.

In this light it is easy to see what Churchill meant that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest”. If we are to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, as Jesus taught, we need also to “Render to God what is God’s” in thoughtful prayer and reflection on the issues raised in the forthcoming election.