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18 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:11pm

Brexiteers shouting democracy must beware the path of Robespierre

Our democracy is more than a majoritarian dictatorship. 

By Dick Taverne

It has become the conventional wisdom that the referendum is the ultimate expression of democracy.  Politicians of all parties seem obliged to acknowledge that the Brexit vote must be treated as final, even though it was expressly designated advisory. To suggest it is not sacrosanct and might be reversed is treated by some of the tabloids as an act of treason against the will of the people.  But why should a referendum vote be any more sacrosanct than the result of a general election?  

There are several reasons, why a referendum should not be irreversible, especially in the case of the recent EU vote. First, those who now denounce any challenge to “the people’s will” have been quite ready to challenge it themselves. Anti-Europeans challenged the verdict of the 1975 referendum to join the European Community the day it was declared.  Before the June vote, Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage announced that if Remain should win, he would never accept the verdict.  

Secondly, the choice in June was not clear. Votes in general elections are votes for or against detailed manifestos. “Brexit means Brexit” is about as meaningful as breakfast means breakfast. What was the menu for which people voted? The Conservative manifesto pledged emphatically: “Yes to the single market.” To the majority of Leave voters, Brexit seems to mean strict control of immigration, which excludes membership of the single market. Theresa May seems to have decided that the aim of curbing immigration must prevail.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there are more fundamental democratic reasons for rejecting the Brexiteers’ argument that the June verdict is irreversible and overrides any decision of Parliament. In fact, it is an essential underlying principle of democracy that no decision should ever be irreversible.

After the Enlightenment, two conflicting interpretations of democracy emerged. The followers of the English philosopher John Locke argued that we should not only have regard for the view of the majority, but also for the rule of law and the protection of the rights of individuals and minorities. They regarded Parliamentary democracy, with its careful checks and balances, as the best guarantee of freedom.  The followers of the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that the will of the majority should always prevail and the individual had no right to disobey it. Locke proved the inspiration of liberal democracies, and his view has been at the heart of the evolution of our own political institutions. Rousseau proved to be the inspiration of the Committee of Public Safety in the French revolution (one of the most famous members of the committee, Maximilien Robespierre, read from his works to the young daughters of his landlord every night). His call to obey the will of the people has always had a special appeal to autocrats. 

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The Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee once said: “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.” Times have changed. Nowadays, respectable democrats accept the occasional use of a referendum. But they should also remember that an unqualified invocation of the will of the majority can easily lead to the denial of the rule of law and of individual rights. The Daily Mail, for instance, recently showed its devotion to Rousseau’s philosophy when it denounced the independent judiciary, our ultimate guardian of the rule of law and the rights of the individual, as “the enemies of the people” because they dared to interpret the law in a way which it thought defied the people’s will (and its own views). There was a whiff of fascism about that screaming headline. And why did the Prime Minister and the Minister for Justice not immediately denounce the Daily Mail for its anti-democratic outburst?  

Furthermore, if our laws were determined by referendum, we would probably still have capital punishment, flogging in prisons, and any number of social reforms which only became accepted after laws were changed by Parliament.

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The reason why the essence of a democracy requires that no decision is irreversible is that opinions change, and people must be allowed to voice their change of mind.  Donald Trump’s election, for example, might change many people’s views. The United States no longer seems interested in promoting democracy, nor free trade. Trump’s protectionism will only too clearly expose the hopelessness of the dream of a post-Brexit free trade bonanza. The prospect of an isolationist United States, which, Trump claimed, does not need allies, should send shivers down the backs of those in the West who fear the spread of Vladimir Putin’s influence in Europe and the Middle East. Trump invoked Brexit as a precedent for his triumph, and treats Farage as his best friend (next to Putin). Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front in France, in turn cites Trump’s election, as well as Brexit. as harbingers for the success of her own ambitions to break up the EU. Surely nothing could be more dangerous at this time than weakening the European Union by making Brexit a reality?  

Of course, if there is no clear change in the public view of Brexit, there is no case for a new referendum.  But apart from the threat from President Trump, who can only make things worse, suppose we find that Brexit will not lead us into the sunny uplands? Suppose we discover that the prospect of exclusion from the single market causes a further substantial fall in the pound, a severe reduction in investment, a rise in interest rates and inflation, a major emigration of companies and a rise in unemployment – in fact a severe recession? People may then decide they were sold a pup by the Leave camp. They did not vote for the hardest of hard Brexits, which will hit the poor worst of all.  Should they not be allowed to express their change of mind before a decision to leave the European Union is finally confirmed?  A Brexit recession may not happen, but certainly cannot be ruled out. We may be like the man falling out of a fourth storey window, who says to himself as he passes the third storey: “All is fine so far.”

Today those who voted Leave may still be ringing their bells. But tomorrow they may well be wringing their hands.

Dick Taverne was a founding member of the Social Democratic Party, and then the Liberal Democrats. He is a life peer.