Another day, another Brexit-related constitutional crisis. This week saw the Prime Minister Boris Johnson (who is noticeably without a mandate) prorogue parliament — trying to stop Members of Parliament from blocking a no-deal Brexit next month. So we face the question: how well can our parliamentary representatives enact the democratic desires of the public as the debate appears to move further away from the same voters it so profoundly affects?
The 2016 pro-Brexit campaigns manipulated the public’s anxieties around the concept of democracy. Direct democracy, which entails the populations participation and directly involves them in the policy, has long been an abstract ideal, and one that presents numerous practical challenges. It relies upon an informed and active electorate, and the presumption that every voice is equal. These principles were tested in the 2016 referendum, which offered the nebulous options of ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ while silencing the input of under-18s and EU citizens living in the UK. To minimise the risks of a ‘mob rule’ overbearing the technicalities of law-making, the UK (like most other democratic nations) adheres to a representative political system in which voters speak through elected officials in parliament.
These professionals work on the promise of fulfilling their constituents’ demands, with the consequence of losing their job when they fall short. Yet, what the political upturn of 2016 revealed is just how significantly our political process demands implicit trust in this representation. When politicians like Michael Gove ironically claim Britons have ‘had enough of experts’ thinking and acting on their behalf, they vocalise a genuine and valid mistrust of a political system that continually exacerbates domestic issues through austerity budgets. Such policies are formulated by an increasingly out-of-touch Westminster echo-chamber — yet the same group of ‘experts’ the public have been positioned against are now tasked with enacting the referendum’s anti-establishment result.
We might indeed be tempted to read the 2016 referendum as the rebuke of a warped and unrepresentative parliamentary system: one in which the British electorate thoroughly rejected the inadequate status quo that parliamentarians offered as the lesser of two evils.
Optimists might even consider 2016 the starting point of a new political system — forming a public voice so powerful that to question the supposed ‘will of the people’ through a second Brexit vote amounts to political suicide in some circles. Yet the minimal changes seen in the past three years reveal such a ‘revolution’ to be merely a repetitive cycle. To face a choice, as this article first suggested, between two modes of democracy is to falsely presume that we are empowered to shape our political system without drastic changes in contemporary society.
The question that we must instead confront is whether we live in a true democracy at all. As the extensive work of whistle-blowers and investigative journalists has revealed, there are worrying links between pro-Brexit campaigns and international far-right groups, many of which worked with firms like Cambridge Analytica to exploit voters’ personal data via social media apps, developing algorithms to spread fake news and polarise constituents.
The monopolisation of the news media through corporate shareholders further distracts the public from this process with ceaseless 24-hour scandals. That such a vital decision as Brexit was taken to the public in this context indeed undermines the concept of direct democracy. It establishes the public as a scapegoat, excusing the inability of our representatives to solve this constitutional crisis and reckon with the long-overdue protest against our political system as acquiescence to the referendum’s result — thereby leaving national divisions to fester.
The 2016 referendum is not a bold new form of politics to blindly welcome, rather it encapsulates our enduring vulnerability to the anti-democratic forces that exploit political crises for financial and political gain. As this sad truth becomes more apparent, our democracy’s survival rests upon figures such as Johnson being held accountable for their actions — both by voters and representatives alike.
By doing this, we may hopefully establish mutual trust between the public (to make informed decisions) and representatives (to represent them), redefining a hybrid mode of democracy that navigates the strengths and weaknesses of both concepts.
If we strive to establish mutual trust between the public and their representative and redefine a hybrid mode of democracy, we can move forward in restoring trust in the political system through co-operation.
Image: Tim Green via Flickr