The death of democracy?

The death of democracy?

June 2020.

A vote of no-confidence has toppled the government and precipitated a general election. After one of the bitterest, most rancorous campaigns in British history, a divided nation goes to the polls. The next morning sees Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party claim victory by just over a million votes, on the highest voter turnout in more than two decades. With a working majority of only 12 seats, Labour has won by the skin of their teeth.

Horrified by the thought of a Corbyn-led government, a petition is started to stop Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister. It rapidly gains around 4 million signatures, more than a quarter of those who voted against him in the election. The CBI, the IMF and dozens of leading economists take to the airwaves, arguing that Corbyn’s socialist plans will devastate the economy, doing untold harm that will take decades to renew. A host of right-wing commentators argue that his manifesto was built on lies, his costings inaccurate and his plans for nationalisation so vague and ill-thought through that it was impossible for anyone to know what they were voting for. In a final revelation, the Electoral Commission reveals that, just as they had in 2017, Momentum had again broken electoral law.

The nation is in uproar. The Conservative Prime Minister leaves No. 10 and takes to the podium. Given the concerns expressed, they announce, they will not be going to the Palace to tender their resignation. it is clear that Corbyn cannot be allowed to become Prime Minister. The victorious Labour MPs will not be allowed to take up their seats. There will be no rerun of the election; instead, the result will be set aside, and the status quo will continue for the foreseeable future.


Appalling? Yes. Outrageous? Yes. Could never happen in Britain? Think again.

As I write this, nearly 4 million people have signed a petition arguing that the government should set aside the result of the largest democratic vote in UK history, a vote that the government promised to implement, and revoke Article 50.

The call for a second referendum is fundamentally unjustified. The idea that there should be a second, ‘validating’, referendum before implementing the result of a vote that the government vowed to implement is as absurd as the idea that there should be a second, ‘validating’, general election before Corbyn can become Prime Minister. But at least the idea pays lip-service to democracy.

By calling for Article 50 to be revoked without a referendum, those signing the petition have demonstrated clearly what has long been obvious: that this has never been about the people’s views, but simply about blocking Brexit. The idea that we should simply ignore the result UK’s largest ever democratic vote is deeply disturbing. Make no mistake: the action being called for in this petition is as outrageous as the one described in the fictitious scenario above.

Democracy depends upon both sides agreeing to abide by the results of the ballot box. We are seeing now that many on one side refuse to accept that.



For the avoidance of any doubt, the opening scenario is entirely fictitious, intended to illustrate the importance of honouring democratic votes. It is not meant to suggest that I would vote for Jeremy Corbyn, nor that I believe that any Conservative prime minister, current or future, would be remotely likely to take the action described.

9 thoughts on “The death of democracy?

  1. Iain it appears that your beef is not even mostly with the EU but against UK our model of representative democracy. The scenario you paint – a Prime Minister refusing to leave Downing Street after an election – would be a coup and entirely unconstitutional. A Prime Minister has no democratic mandate other than in just one of the 650 electoral constituencies. A Prime Minister is the person who can command a majority in the commons. Anyone hijaking the office on the basis of 37,000 votes in – say – Maidenhead would be launching a coup with no shred of a democratic mandate or legitimacy. The 2nd argument is based on partial information which distorts the intent. Nobody is saying that MPs can or should ignore the public. Unless someone declares a dictatorship the public hold the democratic power. Instead the point is to say to the public “we can’t get agreement on the way to leave, a point which wasn’t on the ballot paper. We want time to consult you on what that is but also include an option to remain as time and facts have moved on”. If leading Brexiteers had been remotely accurate (the “cake and eat it” sort, or those that said “it will be the easiest negotiation in history” or “nobody is talking about leaving the single market” etc etc) it would not be a problem. If those on one side of the argument had not sought and been refused a mandate from the public for their specific version of Brexit in a subsequent General Election, it might have been different. But it isn’t. I believe in our representative democracy and the concept of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The lengths that nationalists (in general not you) go to to claim they represent the will of the people which a democratic vote would sully or overturn is far more worrying than any decision about the EU.

    1. It’s astonishing the lengths that some people will go to persuade themselves that it is acceptable to set aside the result of a democratic vote in which the people were explicitly told, ‘we will implement the result.’

      1. Well perhaps the people defining what leave meant should not have called a General Election, made that election all about their understanding of what “leave” meant and lost seats and their majority. Or does a General Election not count as a vote?

      2. I think Steph is advocating for a second referendum, rather than to revoke Article 50 without a second referendum – which is the point I think you’re attacking in this metaphor, and in your reply.

    2. Steph, on your first point – I think Iain’s point is democratic not constitutional. I don’t think he’s arguing that it would be unconstitutional of MPs to revoke A50, I think he’s arguing it would be undemocratic. In his analogy you’re not supposed to think that the only problem is that the UK constitution doesn’t allow this – if Theresa May stoked up such fear of Corbyn that she could get her MPs to vote her the power to do this constitutionally, then I think Iain would still object to it on the grounds that it was undemocratic (hopefully he wouldn’t be the only person!)

  2. I see the analogy as more like:

    An election has been called following a no confidence vote. A very divided Labour party wins (just) on a campaign based on supporting lower earns. In the acceptance speech, the PM-elect announces something seen as extreme (a 60% income tax on £50k+ or something) and as a result enough Labour members resign from the party and set up a new group (called the Independent Group, for argument’s sake), and in doing so the party loses its majority. With the main parties too small to form a minority government, the only option is for a “grand coalition” between the minor parties, say, SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, SLDP and the new Independent Group. There are huge arguments however and they are unable to set up a government despite having a majority as a collective, and both the tories and Labour parties refuse to accept it. There are calls for a new referendum, and also for the previous government to be reinstated.

    It sounds ridiculous, as you admit your scenario above does. But the last 2 years are also equally farcical when it comes to the way the politics has played out.

    I know we disagree on the merits (or otherwise) of the various campaigns, and on the problems arising (or not) from a no deal exit, particularly with only a few weeks’ notice. I think revoking Article 50 would cause huge problems for the perception of democracy, and that there are similar issues with a new referendum. However, I see then as less severe than the very unevenly distributed effects of a no deal exit. Again, I know we disagree on that, but my point is that the seriousness of revoking A50 or running a new referendum on specific outcomes is less than (in my view) the seriousness of the effect of a crash no deal exit.

    1. That is probably the most self-aware and reasonable argument defending it (not counting ‘I signed it as an expression of frustration’, which is also legitimate in its own way.

      I disagree, largely for the reasons we already know we disagree with, but I can respect ‘this is worth it despite the damage it would do to our democracy’ much more than those who say it’s not a problem based on legal technicalities.

      1. There’s certainly a very large dose of frustration there. Plus all the other arguments we’ve discussed previously (vague definition of “leave”, dodgy dealings during campaign, data breaches, demonstrably false promises, expert-trashing, a PM/government unable to campaign properly for Remain, woeful ignorance of what the EU is and how it works, decades of tabloid anti-EU trash talk etc.), which I view as more than a technicality, but I know we don’t agree on many of those.

        If it helps, there’s a mirror: I can respect the view of people who don’t think no deal (or Brexit in general) will be a disaster can see the inevitable pain as being worth it for their specific goals. But, like the reverse situation, I strongly disagree.

        Ho hum.

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