Wednesday 8 June 2016

Democracy and power.

We live in a representative democracy, so we don't often get to make actual decisions. We choose our leaders and leave the decision-making to them. So, when it comes to our membership of the EU, why a referendum?

Well, let's say you're the MP for Chesterfield. What that means is that the people of Chesterfield have elected to lend you their power for a maximum of five years so that you may wield it on their behalf. What it emphatically does NOT mean is that they have given you their power. At the end of your term in Parliament, you have to give it back, and then the people of Chesterfield may elect to loan it to you again. The power is never yours.

Which means you are not allowed to give it to someone else.

As Tony Benn put it in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches ever given in the House of Commons:

Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.

In my ideal world, the public would care about the theft of their rights. They certainly kicked up a stink when our MPs stole some frankly rather small sums of money from us. But our rights? Not so much.

Arguing with people over the last few weeks, I note that they tend to value ends over means: people who like what the EU does believe we should be in it. And that's fine — once we've had a referendum. But that doesn't mean it was OK for our lords and masters to place us under the rule of the European Commission in the first place. The power was never theirs to give away. They needed our permission, yet never sought it. This matters.

I like a lot of what the EU does myself. Not all of it, but a lot of the rules are very sensible, and a lot of them benefit me personally. And I'm not about to defend the legislative prowess of the cornucopia of tongue-dragging muppets we have in Westminster. But to think that that makes the theft of our rights and powers OK is to fall into the usual trap of thinking that democracy is just a decision-making mechanism, and that therefore it is the decision it reaches that matters. But democracy is not primarily a decision-making mechanism. I mean, really, if you were setting out to design a good way of making good decisions, would you come up with democracy? Of course not. Because it's laughably useless.

However, democracy is a very very good civil-war-prevention mechanism.

Benn again:

the important thing about democracy is that we can remove without bloodshed the people who govern us.

The other option being, of course, with bloodshed. Which history tells us is what happens when democracy is destroyed or (as in this case) subverted.

This is why the Referendum is vital. Right now, the European Commission is an illegitimate government in the UK, with no democratic mandate to rule us. After the referendum, it won't be — either because it will no longer be our government or because it will finally have democratic legitimacy. Either option is a vast improvement.

Now, personally, I take a very long-term view of politics and regard the upholding of democracy as far more important than my own ephemeral preferences, so, all other considerations aside, would vote to leave the EU because I believe it is of paramount importance that, when our lords and masters steal our rights and powers, they don't get away with it. I want future parliaments to look at their predecessors' experiment with the subversion of democracy and take away the message "The public did not, in the end, allow it. So don't try it again."

You may shrug at this — as a lot of people do. You may think economic considerations, or the opinion of some scientists, or maternity leave laws are of far more import. You may think the ends matter more than the means. It's always a tempting thought.

But you might want to look at Tony Benn's predictions of what happens when democracy doesn't work:

First, people may just slope off. Apathy could destroy democracy. When the turnout drops below 50 per cent, we are in danger… The second thing that people can do is to riot. Riot is an old-fashioned method for drawing the attention of the Government to what is wrong. ... Thirdly, nationalism can arise. Instead of blaming the Treaty of Rome, people say, ‘It is those Germans’ or ‘It is the French’. Nationalism is built out of frustration that people feel when they cannot get their way through the ballot box. With nationalism comes repression.

And you might want to note that, across the EU, all those things are indeed on the rise. Don't say you weren't warned.

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