A plague o’ both your houses.

Democracy has many problems as the old story of the lamb and two wolves voting on what to have for supper clearly illustrates. However, as Winston Churchill opined ” democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried“. Democratic systems are probably the only way that mankind can live in reasonable harmony and in stable and fair communities. However, for democracy to work a few basic principles need to be observed.

The democratic process needs to be inclusive, so that no-one and their opinion is excluded. It needs to equitable; each person’s vote must carry the same weight are every other persons. There should be a secret ballot so that there is no possibility that others can coerce the voter’s decision, and the democratic unit should be small enough that every vote does count and the system avoids, as far as is possible, the risks of the tyranny of the majority. Finally, the executive of the state must act in accordance of the democratic decisions, it can not pick and chose amongst the outcomes which it agrees with and which it will effect.

Britain’s system had in the main held to these principles and could lay a reasonable claim to the title of “the mother of all parliaments” but over recent times this seems a much less apt description.

I am not simply talking about the reneging on the results of the EU referendum, which three years after the vote has still not been enacted in any form whatsoever, but also of the recent shambles in the house of commons when the constitutional safeguards that we normally relied upon have been sorely, and perhaps fatally, tested.

Firstly we had Boris Johnson attempting to prorogue parliament in such a way as to reduce the amount of time for discussion and scrutiny in the House of Commons. There is also a strong suspicion that he lied when he described the reasons and processes behind this.

Secondly we had John Bercow, the speaker of the house, shamefacedly ignoring the traditions of neutrality of the speaker and being vocally and proudly partial. While this might be seen as useful to some MPs at the moment, as it suits their long-game, we may strongly regret tolerating this precedent in the future when less benign options are being processed.

Thirdly we have our opposition parties trying to avoid an election. Some, like the liberals, have a sizeable component of MP’s who never stood under the banner of the party they now purport to represent. To these parties it is more important to overturn Brexit than it is to even know public opinion, let alone follow it. They clearly think the public has made a mistake and want to correct it but are fearful that the public might not yet have got onboard with the message. Their priority is their agenda, it is not working in agreement with the outcome of a democratic process.

It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung (The Solution)

Die Lösung

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht 1953

Even if the opposition parties do get around to thinking they should put a democratic veneer on this charade we will still have problems. A second referendum violates the basic democratic principle of “one person – one vote” – they are saying “those of you who voted last time don’t count we want the vote of a new populace“, as Brecht suggests.

When we do this once we can do it again, and we are damaging faith in democracy itself. If the state starts to ignore democratic decisions then the whole basis of democracy is undermined. There has been precious little regard for our political leaders over recent years, it seems there soon will be even less. Why vote when your vote may not count or the system is so rigged that change is not forthcoming ? I think none of the main parties can expect to see their popular base growing and I would be very surprised if we didn’t continue to see populist parties, on the left and the right, who listen to the public (or at least pretend to) growing in strength. The blame for this can squarely be placed at the doors of the existing parties. To misquote Shakespeare :-

A plague on all your houses.

7 thoughts on “A plague o’ both your houses.

  1. As I see it we have a conflict between representative democracy and the result of the referendum. At the last general election, MPs were elected who promised to respect the result of the referendum, but the majority also stood to leave the EU in an orderly way. There lies the problem. They are only doing what they were elected to do, and as the election took place after the referendum then they are acting as they should by blocking a no-deal exit. Referendum Leave voters covered the full spectrum of Leave voters (who can say what the various proportions were?) just as the Remain voters covered a wide spectrum or Remain voters (from keep things as they are to joining the Euro for example).

    1. There is truth in your view. I think we gave a binary choice and now are trying to live with the consequences of it. How we deal with this problem is very important and I think the consequences of what we do now will follow us for very many years. Regardless of what side people took on the EU debate, remain or leave, it is important now that we do not sacrifice our principles for political expediency.

      I am not sure how we get out of this mess but it seems that the present political players are digging a bigger and deeper hole for us in the future. It is difficult, as one can not annul the prior vote, and a moral principled democratic event is going to be necessary if there is to be any improvement.

      Another vote, although there are problems about how fair this would be, may be the least worst option. Perhaps a simple confirmatory vote with the same binary choice “Do you still think …etc ” might be a way forward without too much destructive effects on our democratic system. Perhaps a two-staged referendum could be employed with both questions on the same ballot.

      The first question would be a simple do we leave yes/no question the second one would be “with no deal or with a deal (presuming there is one)”. You would only bother looking at the results of the second question if the majority voted to leave in answer to the first question.

      As someone who decided to vote for leave, after a lot of soul searching, I’d prefer if my vote would just be listened to, but if that is going to prove impossible then a second vote might give a fig leaf of moral cover. However, it will be hard to work up enthusiasm or trust again if we get this option.

      I know that this is likely to leave the remain campaign with a victory as distrust, death and weariness will all cost votes. However, I will know that this will never be a moral victory and that is rather what we have at the moment.

      1. I’ve been advocating that same two-stage referendum as a fair way forward too. The trouble is, what does ‘deal’ mean – Theresa May’s, Jermey Corbyn’s, Norway, Canada ….? We were also talking at home today about the likelihood of a general election: Boris campaigns for no-deal leave, Labour for binary referendum of deal v remain. Would that do it too? If after that we ended up with either Boris no-deal or Labour deal then it might have a chance of being broadly accepted as the majority wish. If however we ended up with remain there could be mayhem. Farage would be crying stitch-up with steam out of ears and stirring up trouble. However, I’m resigned to recognising that nothing I or most others think makes on scrap of difference.

  2. J & D > We don’t agree about a second referendum : so much has changed since the first, above all our understanding of the harsh realities – the complexities, contradictions and limitations of the options open to us, that an opportunity to confirm or contradict our previous choice is quite justified. The public need an opportunity to either confirm or change their choice, and above all the opportunity to give a clear and unequivocal direction to parliament and government.

    1. I can see a second referendum coming but think this will be a least worst outcome. However, although I fear that this will damage faith in democracy (how could you trust future votes when you know the outcome can be ignored ?) I also fear that it may not end the problems. Democracy depends on “losers consent”; those that lose agree to the coutcome. If we tamper with this, how will be be sure that a second vote (were it to go the other way) would be accepted and we weren’t about to start a game of “best of three” ? We could end up with a marginal result in either direction and a continued split and polarized society. I wish another referendum could be a ‘magic wand’ that starts mending the rifts in society but worry it may rather prove to be a ‘poisoned chalice’ that aggravates them.

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