In a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill said:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
While I would disagree with many of Churchill’s political views (which were generally reactionary, imperialist and even racist), I would agree with him on this. A referendum is the most direct form of democracy that there is – a decision taken by the people, rather than by representatives elected by the people (or even worse, as in the UK at the present time, by a minority of the people who voted). Yet we are now in the bizarre situation where a significant number of people who voted Leave are regretting having done so, and the UK is apparently heading for a Brexit which may well no longer have the support of the majority. Apparently even Boris Johnson did not seem happy with the result; perhaps the prospect of going down in history as the Prime Minister who took the UK (or what is left of it after Scotland leaves, perhaps accompanied by Northern Ireland) no longer appeals to him.
I have seen suggestions that Cameron should not have called the referendum because EU membership is too complex an issue to be decided by voters, and that the decision should have been left to MPs or even to a panel of experts. I cannot agree with this; it would have been undemocratic. Yet I do believe that there has been a failure of democracy – not in the referendum itself, in the sense of the voters casting their votes, but in how many voters were led to decide how they would vote. For democracy to function properly, voters should be well-informed.
Well ahead of the 2014 referendum, the Scottish Government published a White Paper setting out, in considerable detail, its plans for a transition to an independent Scotland. The No campaign had every opportunity to challenge these plans, and they did. There was no equivalent from the Leave campaign; they never specified clearly whether they envisaged the UK trying to retain access to the European single market. They never acknowledged that such access (perhaps through EFTA membership, as in the case of Norway) would be potentially more expensive than EU membership, and would require the UK to accept many EU laws and regulations, and to continue allow EU citizens the right to live and work in the EU. Nor did they discuss the possibility that the EU might not be willing to negotiate any deal, and take the attitude that ‘out is out’. They did not give any realistic assessment of the damage that exclusion from the single market might do to the UK economy, or set out any proposals as to how they might minimise that damage. Had they done so, they would probably have lost quite a lot of support, and so they relied on lies about the cost of EU membership and encouraged xenophobia.
As I wrote in a previous post, I believe that Cameron blundered by not including a second question on membership of the EEA in the event of Brexit. This should have forced a proper discussion of what would follow Brexit. This could still have taken place if the Remain campaign had done a better job, instead of being Project Fear v2.0, uttering dire warnings of doom and gloom following Brexit without justifying their exaggerated, but not entirely false, claims.
In so far as there has been a failure of democracy, the UK media must take a large part of the blame for failing to better inform the public. Many people in this country are still influenced by what they read in newspapers, which are owned by billionaires with their own selfish agendas. Even the Guardian has shifted to the right in recent years. The lack of a press that covers a full range of political opinions contributes significantly to the democratic deficit in the UK.
According to an article on The Canary (http://www.thecanary.co/2016/06/26/corbyn-coup-shows-just-little-blairites-really-think-us/), many voters, particularly those in areas such as North East of England, voted Leave as a protest against an Establishment which they believe has ignored their interests, presumably without realising that Brexit will harm them more than the people they are angry with. If there has been a failure of democracy, it is not because democracy is not a good thing; it is because there is not, and never has been, enough true democracy in the UK.
One question now is whether, if there is credible evidence that the referendum result no longer has majority support, it is more democratic to treat it as sacrosanct and go ahead with Brexit, or to hold another referendum. My own feelings incline towards the latter, in principle; I believe that Parliament should respect the will of the people as it is now, not as it was sometime in the past. On the other hand, a new EU referendum which returned a majority for Remain would undermine the immediate case for a new independence referendum. I think that, for me, relief would outweigh disappointment as Scotland becoming independent as the rest of the UK exits the EU could be fraught with difficulties – but not becoming independent would be much worse.
At the moment we do not know when Article 50 will be formally invoked, we are not absolutely certain that it will be invoked, and even if it is invoked it is still perhaps possible that Brexit might not happen if the UK Government and the EU agree that it should not. It might be argued that we need to wait and see what happens, but I believe we must assume that Brexit will happen, and push urgently for a new independence referendum. If we wait until Brexit becomes absolutely certain to happen, we may find ourselves out of the EU before we can get free of the UK.