Monday 16 May 2016

Institutions, Democracy and Brexit

Most elections do not ask people to vote for an institution. Institutions are not borne out of democratic voting: they emerge through the exercise of social positions, rights, responsibilities and obligations in daily life. Voting is such an exercise - but we vote primarily to re-assert our right to throw our rulers out of office if we don't like them - even if we vote to preserve the status quo.

What if we were having a referendum on the future of the BBC? Would any government call such a thing? I doubt it. The future of the BBC would be determined by government policy. If we didn't like the policy, we would resolve to throw the government out. This is really how our relationship with the EU should be handled. But for internal political troubles within the government, it has been forced to hold a referendum. What will the people do? I think it's obvious. They will re-assert their right to throw the leaders out of office (even if they like them) because that is what voting is really about. They will vote for Brexit.

If there's one thing that the EU vote, the selection of Donald Trump to run for president, the election of Jeremy Corbyn, or the appeal of Bernie Sanders have in common is that they all have arisen by people asserting their democratic right to kick people they don't like. If there's a critical mistake the establishment has made it is that they have forgotten what voting is. It is not a statistical game like the X-factor that (in the end) maintains the centre ground and upholds the existing institutions of government. People vote to assert their right to vote and it is because that right is upheld by the institutions of government that its very unusual for anything more radical than a minor change of leadership ever results.

The EU was never democratic in this way. In EU elections, people voted to assert a right to send a signal to their national government, not to elect a European Parliament: they didn't need another parliament because their right to determine their future was adequately upheld by their national government. European democracy was fake democracy, and European voting was a distortion of voting. Moreover, fake democracy is usually some kind of cover for doing something against the interests of the people, but claiming that the people have just voted for it.

Perhaps all referenda are 'fake democracy' like this: a way of slipping-in undemocratic manoeuvres all the time claiming a mandate for doing so. They protect the government of the day from taking the full consequences of the serious decisions they are elected to take. We start wars without referenda, and governments bear the consequences. Why have a referendum to leave the EU if not to stop the Tory party tear itself apart?

The interesting thing about this vote is that although it is 'fake democracy', its consequences will destabilise Europe: not least, because it will call the bluff of the establishment who believed the exercise of democracy was there to support the institutions which they created. True democratic institutions do not come into being like this.

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