Simply having more democracy does not make it better

Simply having more democracy does not make it better

by Linda Holt
article from Wednesday 22, May, 2019

LAST THURSDAY during a sunny walkabout inspecting our potholed infrastructure in Crail, my fellow East Neuk councillor, whom I work well with, asked me about the EU elections. He wore a pained expression and said that he was very worried about democracy because of Nigel Farage. A moment of awkwardness ensued, as I agreed and disagreed. 

My colleague is a lifelong, committed SNP member, so I knew his worries were that the EU referendum vote wasn’t democratic, having been based on misinformation and illegal spending; that the Brexit result wasn’t democratic for Scotland, where the majority was for remain; and that the rise of Farage and the Brexit Party further threatened the democratic will of Scotland, as he saw it, to remain in the EU. Beyond that I expect there was a fashionable gesturing towards the idea that Farage is far-right and therefore intrinsically anti-democratic, with the Brexit Party’s success representing a far-right, even fascist, incursion into British politics.

As a unionist who voted for Brexit, I am also worried about democracy – namely, that for three years the government and parliament have thwarted implementing the referendum result, which, for me, was an output of direct democracy that was endorsed by representative democracy in the 2017 general election. 

I don’t accept that the EU referendum vote was invalidated by illegal spending or misinformation – both happen to some extent, and are alleged to happen to a greater extent by a losing fringe, in all polls.

The misinformation argument risks implying that people who voted Brexit were too stupid to realise what they were really voting for. Ironically, this class prejudice recalls a similar move by Scottish nationalists when they accuse unionists of seeing Scotland as “too wee, too poor and too stupid” for independence.

As a unionist, I reject the ways the SNP never misses an opportunity to make an argument based on the assumption that Scotland is a separate country that is being slighted by the big, bad UK. Scotland isn’t an independent nation-state (yet), but part of the UK, and part of the EU only insofar as it is part of the UK. The EU referendum was a UK-wide vote on a UK matter, and every area, however large or small, has to accept the result, no matter how it voted. That’s how every election works, and I don’t see why that principle doesn’t apply to referenda. Of course it’s the SNP’s business to make a special case for Scotland, but that only stacks up if you buy the premise that Scotland is at heart a separate country.

Unlike my colleague, my fear for democracy is for democracy in the whole of the UK, and it predates Nigel Farage, who is more of a symptom or an expression, than a cause, of its malaise. 

To paraphrase a recent ThinkScotland piece, the mother of all woolly mammoths is democracy. Of course the analogy breaks down somewhat as this member of the elephantidae family is talked about – or rather it is paid lip-service, a rhetorical giveaway made in passing to bolster a position on Brexit, Scottish independence etc.

For decades, academics and politicians at all levels have been wringing their hands about political disengagement and voter apathy as (elected) politics keeps calm and carries on. As MPs have heroically ignored the leaking, vermin-infested, disintegrating, utterly unfit for 21st century purpose Palace of Westminster, they have become living symbols of this democratic disconnect. Modernisation, which has come by way of devolution, has been devolved, and pushed to the margins by its nature. Despite its promise, and despite ways in which the Holyrood set-up improves on Westminster, devolution has not proved to be an antidote to political disengagement and democratic disillusion.

Both the independence and EU referendums were seen as ways to settle issues that representative democracy (as it currently exists in the UK) could not. Both have notoriously failed to put these issues to bed. Instead they have backfired. Division has been entrenched as direct democracy and representative democracy are pitted against each other, fissuring the legitimacy and authority of both. 

There seems to have been an intuition that since democracy is a good thing, more democracy must be better. So a deficit in one kind of democracy can be mended by tacking on a new and different kind of democracy. The same naive thinking informs Scotland’s Community Empowerment Act and the vogue for citizens’ assemblies, all good things in themselves and admirable ways to address political disengagement, but in practice they introduce new forms of democratic decision-making which are liable to conflict with the established ones of representative democracy – unless of course these are also radically reformed.

Very few politicians seem to be thinking publicly about radical reform of our democratic structures, and there seems to be little space in the febrile, day-to-day jockeying for position and headlines. A reformed second chamber, federalism, some sort of PR, local government reform, extending subsidiarity – all these should come into play.

Thursday will bring an election that will surely go down as the biggest bad faith election in UK history. Bad faith because it cancels out the referendum result and blanks the winning majority of Brexit voters. The fact that the election is taking place says one thing, and one thing only to UK voters: stuff you, it’s business as usual for the EU and the political establishment.

It defies belief that the EU, the UK Government and Parliament think they can get away with pulling such a blinder. They must know there will be protest, a hit in the numbers of MEPs elected – but that hardly matters, because politicos know being an MEP is a career dead end and everyone else knows they are largely irrelevant (in itself another symptom of the EU’s perceived lack of democratic accountability and legitimacy). In the end the reckoning by the EU, Government and Parliament must be that any wider damage will be contained and temporary.

The Brexit Party, if it continues beyond Brexit, could be the catalyst for radical democratic reform. 

Back on the streets of Crail, I greeted two cheery, sun-hatted Lib Dem colleagues getting their “Bollocks” leaflets out of the boot of a car for distribution. Later I saw our SNP MP, who is also the SNP’s Europe spokesman, hanging about forlornly, on his mobile, no doubt vainly trying to find out where he was supposed to be for canvassing. Mobile coverage in Crail is execrable. 

Conservatives or Labour were nowhere to be seen. 

Linda Holt is a Conservative Councillor for East Neuk & Landward. Photo by Auremar. 

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