Chris Dillow and Simon Wren Lewis have both recently written compelling articles about when and whether Labour should support a second referendum. I am big fan of their blogs, so when they write ostensibly contrasting views on a subject very close to my heart I have to wrack my brain a bit to decide what to think. I won’t try and summarise their arguments, as I’m not sure I would do them justice, but would heartily recommend reading both here and here. For the most part I am not certain that there is much practical disagreement about what to do now. Dillow is more convinced that a second referendum can only be offered as a last resort when all other options fail, but given this failure will likely occur within the next few weeks such a difference may be insubstantial.
One thing I do disagree with in Dillow’s piece is the accordance with the characterisation of delivering Brexit as ‘the democratic thing to do’. This is certainly what is widely believed, and Dillow is correct in saying that some remainers underestimate how significant this belief is as a motivator. I don’t doubt that many people in the Labour party have a strong sense of duty to deliver a result they themselves do not like. And politically, this belief is a very significant factor to consider. Dillow may simply be referring to the beliefs of others. He argues that politically this needs problem needs to be answered before Brexit can be stopped, which I think is both correct, and suggests at most an ambivalent attitude to the democratic nature of the vote. In case this is not so, I would like to offer a few reasons why I do not believe the referendum process or its implementation should be viewed as democratic.
Firstly, a vote cannot be considered democratic if key stake holders are excluded from the electoral process. This particular vote disenfranchised both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; in other words, precisely those most likely to be affected by the decision had no say in it.
Secondly, there are some decisions where we would not think it legitimate for decisions to be taken on a majoritarian basis, even where relevant stake holders were included in the decision making process. Some decisions we would think of as only legitimately taken by the individual, some locally, some by particular interest groups like trade unions etc. This, practicalities aside, is why we tend to believe in restrictions in the role of central government in the private life, in some measure of local government, and in some idea of legitimate action by governments internationally. It is why a referendum on Scottish independence is not a UK wide referendum, why minority rights should be protected even if the majority does not want to, and why certain areas of life should be considered as belonging to the private sphere, either de facto, or through formal written constitution. It is not clear to me why a decision which is explicitly taken by those with political power as a mandate to curtail what were previously viewed as political rights, particularly important to a now vulnerable group, should be viewed as democratically legitimate.
Thirdly, the most important thing about democracy always struck me to be about the system, rather than the particular moment or decision. The value of elections was more about its role in allowing for representation, empowerment and accountability than in any particular result being the ‘correct’ momentary aggregation of preferences. This means that what really matters about Brexit democratically is its effect on the constitution as a whole. This has been uniquely corrosive, and will continue to be so. It has led to an executive power grab, called into question the role of MPs, had lasting damage on political norms, and was won initially by breaking the rules. Which course of action will minimize this continuing damage is a difficult question, but I would argue that there is substantial damage to liberal democratic norms by continuing on this path.