One of the positives (if such it can be called) that has arisen from the utter debacle that is Brexit is surely that the inconsistencies and vagaries of the British political system has been brought under close scrutiny. (Whether or not anything is done with this information is another matter entirely!)
My own view of what democracy should be: that of a system in which the voice of the voter is supreme, and is such that it can be given or withheld at a moment’s notice – is perhaps not a view which is universally accepted. Some views agree that the voter’s voice should be supreme – yet only at times of an election, whilst other systems allow for regularly sounding of public opinion via referenda which are then implemented by the representatives. Others still determine that those elected are elected to represent the wishes of a political body or party, and that it is the views of this party which take precedence.
What has become clear from the Brexit situation, is that as far as the British political system is concerned, no single principle applies totally and unconditionally. The so-called ‘Parliamentary Democracy’ that is the British political system is a mishmash of ideas thrown together and across which no single unifying concept reigns. Irrespective of the rightness of any single concept however, it seems logical to me that what it should be possible to agree universally, is that any system in which there exists confusion surrounding the application of these methods cannot be democratic: if a voter cannot state with certainty how a political representative can be expected to operate in a given situation, then the system cannot be democratic.
The point which is common to all democracy is that the voice of the voter is supreme (see above concerning the specifics of that); yet in any system where this remains uncertainty concerning these rules of engagement, then the voter cannot be exercising a supreme voice – because they are not provided with the option of choosing a known constant. If a voter votes expecting that the elected representative will do ‘whatever the hell they like’ once elected, then that vote can be cast democratically with the voter safe in the knowledge that they cannot complain once the vote has been cast. Similarly, if the voter votes expecting that Party doctrine will be followed to the letter, there too a vote can be cast democratically knowing that irrespective of the person, the policies of the Party will dominate. However, if the voter cannot say from one situation to the next whether or not the representative will do as they please, vote according to party policy or even according to the wind – then how can any voter’s choice be sound? Under conditions of uncertainty and interpretation, the voice of the voter is no longer supreme…
In order for any system to be democratic therefore, there needs to be a fixed and understood set of rules to which political parties and representatives are held. Unwritten constitutions cannot be considered to be democratic.
As has been mentioned, this ‘un-democraticness’ of the British system has been demonstrated clearly during Brexit, in the last 4 years there have been MPs clearly lying to the public about Brexit, MPs leaving the Party which they represented at the previous election and joining another (or another again), MPs voting against Party Policy, MPs voting against a bill from the Leader of their Political Party and yet voting FOR the very same Leader in a vote of confidence… there is even a process now underway to permit the selection of a new Prime Minister by only a select few individuals who happen to be members of a single Political Party.
The leadership process itself has proved to be a microcosm of this very ‘un-democraticness’ . My own personal interpretation of much that has been heard and seen during this leadership campaign is that the priority of the individuals campaiging is either one of personal career, of the preservation of the Conservative Party in government. GIving just one example – Jeremy Hunt indicated in June that there will be “No future for [the Conservative] party until we deliver Brexit – any elections before then will just allow [Labour] to sneak through the middle. But when the UK has Brexited, we will be back.”. This single statement clearly shows that the priority for Jeremy Hunt is not Brexit, but rather the continuation in government of the Tories.
If then the priority of any political party is its own continuation (and preferably) in power; then we can assume that that political party will do anything to continue (in power). I would argue that if the only end is power itself, then democracy is dead, since respect for the voice of the voter comes in a second best to the existence of the party itself.
The starting point for this article was initially the comments of the candidates such as Jeremy Hunt, however this was intensified by listening to members of the public phoning in to a talk-show to discuss the recent decision by the Labour Party to back a referendum on any deal agreed by the Conservative Party. Some callers thought that it was undemocratic of the Labour Party since the people ‘voted’ for remain, some thought that it was democratic because it offered the public a chance to vote on the detail of what Brexit should be, and some thought that it was incoherent because there was no idea of whether or not such a referendum would also be held if there was a General Election. What became very clear is that each person had different behavioural expectations of their MPs, and that is something which can be clarified at least.
Without a written constitution of course, there is no way to answer those points once and for all… and if the voting public do not know what democracy is, then how can they be sure they have it?