A constant refrain from politicians and others is that we have to leave the EU because we have to respect democracy, where by democracy they mean that 52% voted to do so. Arguments that the vote was based on lies by the Leave side are met with dismissive remarks like both sides were the same, or what do you expect from politicians and so forth. The important thing, we are told, is to ‘respect democracy’.
In Poland the government recently passed a law which will dismiss all existing judges and allow the state to directly appoint their successors. This government was democratically elected, and the plan was in their manifesto. So why did the Polish President veto the plan, and why was the EU deeply concerned about it? Surely there was a clear mandate for this policy? Shouldn’t the President and the EU respect democracy?
The reason why the President and the EU were right is that democracy is much more than having elections or referendums every so often. Checks and balances, and the rule of law, are crucial ingredients of a well functioning democracy. But having an independent judiciary is not the only essential characteristic of democracy besides voting.
I personally think an important part of democracy is that politicians do not base campaigns on complete lies, and that knowledge, evidence, facts and expertise are respected and are easily accessible to all voters. Otherwise elections can be won by those who tell the biggest lies. If this happens and is not remedied democracy is a sham. As I noted here, lies were central to the Leave campaign (more money for the NHS, Turkey about to join the EU) and have already been shown to be untrue, while the central plank of the Remain campaign (dubbed Project Fear by Leave) has already come to pass. Polls suggest the Leave lies gained them votes. Only one side in the campaign spent a large amount of time dismissing or denigrating academic expertise (be it economists or lawyers).
In the US the Republicans control Congress and the White House, all won by democratic elections, where a key part of the Republican platform was repealing Obamacare. The Republicans therefore appear to have an overwhelming democratic mandate for this repeal. So why are so many people protesting against this repeal? Isn’t it important for democracy that repeal goes ahead?
You may say that the Republicans did not say how they would repeal Obamacare, but neither did the Leave campaign say how they were going to leave the EU (or rather they said whatever people wanted to hear). You may say that Leave voters will lose their faith in the democratic system if Brexit doesn’t happen, but the same is surely true for Republican voters if Obamacare is not repealed. That is hardly a reason to do it.
But referendums are not like elections, we are told. Mandates from elections can be challenged but referendum results must be respected. But where is it written that referendum results (particularly those that are so close) can never be challenged? Where is it written that we must be bound by the words of politicians during the referendum (we could add whether we should be bound by an electorate chosen to keep Brexiteers happy). If it turns out that the claims of one side in the referendum have been shown to be false, where is it written that the referendum result should nevertheless be cast in stone for a generation. The answer is nowhere, and for the good reasons that David Allen Green explains. All that is written is that parliament is sovereign.
People overseas, in the EU or outside, are mystified at what the UK is currently doing. The main supporter of Brexit overseas is an authoritarian regime, which should give you a clue about what is going on. There are two overwhelming reasons for challenging the referendum result: it was arrived at after a deeply flawed campaign, and we now have information that clearly shows the extent of the Leave campaign’s lies. The Leave campaign abused democracy before the vote with lies, and then abused the word subsequently to stifle any dissent. When a vote is won narrowly in an election based on lies that have now been exposed, it seems to me that a hallmark of a functioning democracy is that the original vote is challenged and voters have a chance to vote again.
First posted on Mainly Macro
Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economics at Oxford University.
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