(This is the final part of Roger’s BBC broadcast, Democracy after Brexit. Here he explains the essence of – and despite its flaws – the superiority of our Britain’s system of representative democracy.)
Ours is a representative democracy. We elect our representatives to Parliament in order that they should advance our interests there. In this, we are affirming our existence as a ‘we’ – an electorate bound together by a pre-political loyalty, and an identity that we share.
Many are the flaws in the system of government, but one feature gives it an insuperable advantage over all others so far devised: which is that it makes everyone who exercises power accountable to the rest of us. That is what the sovereignty of the people means. But the people in question must be bound together as ‘we’ – only if this ‘we’ is in place, people cooperate in ensuring that the legislative process is both accountable and also reversible when it make mistakes.
It is surely impossible, therefore, that we should be truly represented by the European institutions. The Commission is not elected and its legislation is neither publicly introduced nor openly discussed. There is no organised opposition and no clear procedure for correcting mistakes or for rejecting those who make them. And there is no way of rectifying these defects, since there is no ‘we’ who can insist on another arrangement.
All that ‘we’ the people can do is to get our government to withdraw from the Treaty. And this points us to the strangeness of the whole arrangement. In a parliamentary democracy, legislation changes and constitutions evolve according to the will of the people. But when legislation is controlled by a Treaty, and the Treaty itself can be changed only by majority vote of the signatories, the legislative process rapidly stagnates, proceeding with an agenda which has never adapted to the changed conditions of Europe, and which cannot adapt to the now.
We have seen this in connection with what, for us, is the most critical feature of the Treaty of Rome, namely that providing for freedom of movement within the union, which has stimulated an unprecedented tide of immigration into this country, which we have no legal power to limit. Nobody foresaw the effect of this provision when the original treaty was signed, but nobody can undo the provision, just because it is leading to a demographic catastrophe. We must go on following the instructions, even though they were written in another world by people long since dead.
Many people say that in a representative democracy, referendums are only dubiously legitimate, and indeed, this is true. For referendums deny the right of legislators to make informed decisions without consulting the people – something that they must feel free to do if they are to be genuinely accountable. However, there is one circumstance in which only a referendum can answer the need of the moment, and that is when what has to be decided is the question, ‘who has the right to decide?’ Who – in other words – is part of the ‘we’.
To answer this question we must appeal directly to the people. That is why we had a referendum on Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom, and why we have had a referendum on our membership of the European Union. The appeal to the people is especially important now, when so many have seen their world is turned upside down by the global economy. For many of them, their old attachments have been disturbed, their sense of place and home has been disrupted, and yet they, as much as the elites, want to live life to the full and to be at peace with their neighbours.
The referendum gave these people a voice, and what they have told us is that their country, its laws, and its sovereignty are more important to them than the edicts of anonymous bureaucrats striving to rule them from nowhere.
Our metropolitan elites would happily discard such people in the way that the Labour Party, in the discussions over the referendum, seemed happy to discard the indigenous working class, and to speak for the multinational restaurateurs of Islington, rather than the struggling factory workers of our Northern cities. But there is no way of forcing onto people forms of attachment that are not generic to their way of life. We must therefore work to include the ordinary people for whom this country is an inheritance and a home in the decisions made in their name.
Can it be done? Well, one thing is certain, it was not being done by the European Union. In this matter, at least, things can only get better.
(Image: John Pannell)