As we approach Brexit Ground Zero, Labour’s leavers, at least those too embarrassed to talk about immigration are pinning their hopes on the “but Democracy” argument.

In March 1975 Margaret Thatcher described referendums as “a device of dictators and demagogues” but she got a lot wrong and I ask myself if this is true.

Britain is run as a Parliamentary Democracy but there is no basic law and Parliament can do as it pleases. Many if not most of the checks on the Executive or on Ministers are based on convention not statute. We have an unelected upper chamber in which both hereditary peers and Church of England bishops have votes and we have a hereditary Head of State. I thought and wrote about the UK’s Democracy last year and found it wanting.

A democracy must exist under a rule of law; Britain does not because Parliament, which means the House of Commons can do as it pleases. Our only Human Rights guarantee is two Acts of Parliament, which can both be repealed. We should note that Government impunity is increased as the Coalition Government took away legal aid for judicial review and while this was designed to stop benefit claimants suing the Government when it broke the law, it also makes it much more difficult to defend more political rights.

Political systems must be designed to resolve priorities either by building a consensus or by articulating a majority view when the issues are such that there is a polarisation in society. We have furthermore the need to define and defend basic Human Rights which the world has developed a consensus around the UN Declaration of Human Rights, although in Western Europe we tend to ignore economic rights, such as freedom from poverty.

The problem of a dual mandate is not uncommon. Presidential systems based on the US model have this built in, as does the French system and on a smaller scale our system of Executive Mayors.  It should be necessary for a President to build a wide-ranging coalition to win, which should be a protection against the degeneration of Democracy, but history would suggest this is not the case. Where a society is split on critical social & economic issues, or religious[1] or national identity issues, the “winner takes all” nature of Presidential systems and Plebiscites is a centripetal force on the unity of the polity. (This is powerfully identified in Juan Linz’s paper, Democracy: Presidential or Parliamentary, Does it make a difference?) I say,

Only a Parliament can represent the breadth of interests[2] in a complex society, only a Parliament can negotiate popular compromises based on 2nd choices and changing priorities.

Presidents and plebiscites pose a tyrannical threat to the nuances of the people’s will, only a Parliament has a mandate and capability to resolve & negotiate these complexities and we should note its mandate is comprehensive and current. The issue of developing a compromise may be critical, particularly in the terms of the Brexit debate where a number of advocates of Leave have changed their minds from seeking a deal to opposing one. I was of the view that the advocates of Leave should negotiate the terms of exit and then as Unions do, ask if the deal was acceptable. This allows people to change their mind, and consider their opinion when the detail of the proposal is concrete.

The history of the degeneration of democracies, most recently and obviously in Turkey, is one where a Parliamentary system is transformed by plebiscite into a Presidential one, and then bit-by-bit the checks and balances are removed, starting usually with an attack on the independence[3] of the judiciary.

We are sleep walking along a similar path.

While I cannot find an inexorable proof that plebiscites[4] are the tools of dictator’s and demagogues, their history would strongly suggest that this is the case.

ooOOOoo

[1] For a short period, Bosnia & Herzgovina had a multi-ethnic/faith presidium and the Lebanon had an ethnic/faith power sharing convention sharing the President/Prime Minister/Speaker roles.

[2] This needs small-ish constituencies and fair voting systems, and in the UK the abolition of the House of Lords

[3] Although the only independence that the UK judges has is indefinite tenure; another area we could do better.

[4] I am of the view that Presidential systems based on the US model are also less capable of representing the breadth and nuamce of the politics of the nation and are fundamentally less stable.

but democracy!
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