Rather like with the US presidential election, the EU Referendum in the UK continues to have a lot of sore losers who won’t accept the surprise outcome. One of these is Professor A.C. Grayling, who writes:
Those who say that Parliament can note and learn from the outcome of the 23 June advisory referendum, yet not choose to take the UK out of the EU, are accused by those who supported ‘Leave’ of being ‘anti-democratic.’ It is vital to understand why it would not be ‘anti-democratic’ for Parliament to decide to retain the UK’s EU membership. It is especially vital that our MPs should be reminded of these considerations, because the future of the UK and the EU is now wholly in their hands.
I have heard from a number of MPs who will oppose Brexit in Parliament. I have heard from a number more who say they would like to oppose it, but they are concerned about going against ‘the democratic outcome of the referendum.’ I wish to demonstrate to these latter that to treat the outcome of the referendum as binding on them is precisely undemocratic, and that the interests of the nation and its future lies in their exercising their democratic right and responsibility to oppose Brexit if that is what they believe is right for the country.
The key point about what is democratic and not democratic lies in the difference between an election and a referendum. In an election, electors confer temporary and revocable license on representatives to attend Parliament. In Parliament the electors’ representatives are required to act in the best interests of their electors, which they chiefly do by acting in the best interests of the country. They are mandated to enquire, debate and decide on legislation, and to hold the executive to account. They are not messengers or delegates charged merely with reporting or acting on their electors’ views; they are plenipotentiaries, acting by their own best lights on behalf of their electors. If they do a bad job they can be dismissed and replaced. This is representative democracy.
In the first place, he says that the referendum was “advisory”. But clearly the British Government didn’t think it was advisory when it sent a pamphlet to every voter in Britain that included the words:
The meaning of this is perfectly clear: the Government would do whatever the people decided. It doesn’t say that the Government will take account of their advice, or the Government will think about it a bit, or the Government will come back and ask them again if they give the wrong answer. It says: The Government will implement what you decide.
But on to Grayling’s more substantive argument, which is that in a parliamentary democracy, it is for Parliament to make the decisions, and frame the laws, after “mature deliberation.”
Representative democracy is a filter that guards against descent into forms of populism. It consists in a due process intended to allow for all factors to be taken into account, and for mature deliberation to select the best way forward on the basis of those factors.
I think this is a very strong argument. What if we were to have referendums about everything? What if there was to be referendum about re-nationalising British Rail, or building a new London airport? What if any question of any substance was thrown open to the British people?
The answer must surely be that in most such matters the British people have no relevant knowledge about the pros and cons of railway nationalisation or airport construction. And furthermore neither question affects most people in Britain. The matter is best left for the mature deliberation of Parliament, assisted by various experts in the relevant fields, with any referendum regarded as merely advisory of public opinion on the matter, precisely in the manner that Grayling sets out.
But that is not the end of the matter. For the question that the British people were being asked was whether they wanted to leave or remain in the European Union, and this question was essentially whether they wished to be governed by the Westminster Parliament or by the EU Parliament in Brussels.
In what way can the Westminster Parliament answer such a question about its own sovereignty and legitimacy? It’s like asking the Metropolitan police whether there should be a police force: they can’t answer that question, because it was not they who created the police force in the first place. In the same way, Parliament cannot answer questions about its own legitimacy, because Parliament did not create itself.
The only people who can answer the question of who governs Britain are the British people. It is they, and they alone, who lend its government legitimacy. If their governance is to be transferred from Westminster to Brussels, the British people must first consent to it.
The sovereignty and legitimacy of the Westminster Parliament was established during the English Civil War (1642–1651), at which time the question the English people faced was: Do you want to be ruled by the King or your own elected Parliament? It’s the very same question that the British people are facing in 2016, but with a continental parliament as the rival to the Westminster Parliament. Back in 1642, the Royalists and the Parliamentarians squared off against each other, and fought the matter out, and the result was the triumph of the Parliamentarians, and it has remained ever thus afterwards, even though a restricted form of monarchy was re-introduced.
Now it probably would have been a lot better in 1642 if the English people had been asked in a referendum whom they wished to be governed by. It would have saved many lives. And that is the point of elections (and referendums): to resolve disputes bloodlessly. Instead of the rival armies meeting in the field, they meet at the ballot box.
But the point, back in 1642, was that neither King nor Parliament could decide which of them was the legitimate supreme sovereign power in England. Only the people could decide. And the people did decide, by force of arms.
The same happened in America in 1775, when the American people, who had hitherto been governed by Britain, determined that they wished to govern themselves, and fought a war to overthrow the British, and won. Once again, the people decided who would govern them – although no doubt there were many Americans who wished that Britain continued to exert sovereign power over the American states.
So Grayling’s case for leaving the matter to Parliament falls down when the question being asked is about the sovereignty of Parliament itself. Parliament cannot answer such questions. Only the people can decide. And that is why the results of the bloodless referendum on 23 June must be accepted as binding, however uncomfortable the result may be to many people. For if it is not accepted, then the people will be forced to impose their will in another civil war, just like in 1642 (or 1775).
Furthermore, the same question is being faced in every single member state of the EU: Do you want to govern yourselves in your own elected parliaments or assemblies, or be governed from Brussels? And I suspect that the answer in every case will be the same as the British answer: they will want to govern themselves.