We are where we are but one thing should be clear. The referendum result was not achieved by democracy. The same stubborn 30+ percent of the population which has complained about immigration since the 1960s, is largely weighted towards the elderly, is comparatively uneducated and reads right-wing tabloid newspapers day in and day out achieved more votes in the referendum for the Leave campaign than anyone predicted.
Why isn’t that democracy in action? Firstly, there isn’t a majority and there wasn’t a majority for such a substantial change in our international relationships and economy. Over 60% of the population either supports our links with Europe, doesn’t know enough to suggest they should be changed or is happy to leave things to politicians and policymakers. The overwhelming message of the campaign was that many people couldn’t make a choice between two starkly different narratives supported by shaky evidence.
The Remain campaign was a failure not because of who joined in but because the agenda was set by the press barons and because government has not engaged with the issues of inadequate housing, refugees, economic migrants, overcrowded schools and the downward drive to a low-wage zero hours economy. Perhaps it was never going to be possible for Cameron and Osborne to face these issues, but the broadcast media swallowed the Daily Mail and Murdoch agendas and made things worse. They will argue that they were only discussing the issues on the street but they should have broadened the debate and they didn’t. The Parliamentary Labour Party was disunited and bickering so the opposition wasn’t consistent or sufficiently focused on the genuine issues. But, even if the campaign was better than that, it does not make the result more or less democratic.
Secondly, there’s an irony, if not an absurdity, in all of this. Much of the campaign has been about the sovereignty of the British Parliament and yet that sovereignty has been scuppered by this vote. Parliament does not have to be bound by any expression of opinion although it has to take notice of it and the weasel statements of the past few days show Parliamentary democracy in a poor light. The setup of the referendum is partly to blame for this with a 51% majority, a confused issue and the background where it served the interests of David Cameron to secure unity in his party and win the last election without thinking about the consequences. It was a political strategy which has come disastrously unstuck but a failure in the Conservative party to manage itself and its policies should not be sufficient to usurp the primacy of Parliament. Would people really be happy to see Parliament voting through a decision to engage with Article 50 when the majority of elected members of Parliament did not want to vote in that way? That would be profoundly undemocratic and morally reprehensible.
And, thirdly, we are on the brink of a democratic crisis with far wider ramifications. David Cameron has resigned and is likely to be replaced as leader of the Conservative party by Boris Johnson. He could also, de facto, become Prime Minister and organise the nation’s departure from the European Community but it is surely questionable whether there would be a public mandate for this. In terms of the checks and balances within our system, Parliament could vote against his policies but if there was any notion that this was somehow a done deed so that opponents should abstain that would reflect very badly on the integrity of our politicians and their accountability to us for good and sound government. The Parliamentary way for Boris Johnson to proceed would be to call a general election and then there could be policy arguments around all of the issues, members of Parliament would be elected and they could vote, or not vote, to leave the EU. At least, that would restore the sovereignty and democracy of Parliament.
Finally, there’s a wider background to this. The referendum has noted, and arguably created, some stark divides in our society. The arguments have not been green and pleasant and one of the duties of Parliament is to take a balanced view and bring society back together. It hasn’t been doing this well recently not only in terms of policy but also in terms of the apparent remoteness of the political system and this should be a wake-up call before extreme views get expressed in extreme ways. We do not need strong or authoritarian leadership but we do need democratic leadership and everyone should understand the difference. In all of this, and despite everything which has happened, our democracy will be in serious trouble if we fail to protect the primacy of our elected Parliament.