Britain’s interminable Brexit debate has always been about more than just membership in an economic and political union. The 2016 referendum asked voters to choose between leaving or staying in the European Union, but right from the start, the discussion raised broader issues about democracy and national sovereignty. For many Leave voters, Brexit was about reclaiming power from Brussels so Britain could better hold its representatives to account.
Three years on and Brexit has triggered what many are calling “a constitutional crisis.” The battle being waged, in Parliament and on the streets around Westminster, is not just between Leave or Remain, or even between Left and Right. It’s a far more fundamental conflict over the meaning of democracy itself.
Back in 2016, the referendum put the issue of EU membership directly to the people—a decision that was supported by a majority of members of Parliament. A leaflet sponsored by the government and delivered to every household in the UK declared: “The government will implement what you decide.” Under this form of direct democracy, a majority of voters—51.9 percent or 17.4 million—voted for Britain to leave the EU. Over 72 percent of the electorate turned out to vote, a figure far higher than in many general elections.
However, when it came to enacting the decision to leave the EU, we reverted back from direct democracy to representative democracy: we had to rely on our representatives in Parliament to implement what we had decided. The problem with this became immediately apparent. Over two thirds of MPs had backed remaining in the EU, including many who represented Leave-voting constituencies. For the three years following the referendum, we had a Remain-voting prime minister in Theresa May and a Remain-voting chancellor of the Exchequer. Despite being told repeatedly that Britain would be leaving the EU, it becomes clearer every day that at best this is meant to be a Brexit In Name Only. Yet such rhetorical trickery put a lid on the divide between the Leave-voting public and Remain-backing politicians, at least temporarily.
This stalemate, however, couldn’t hold forever. Things changed over the summer with May’s resignation and the appointment of Boris Johnson as prime minister. Now, at last, we have a government seemingly determined to enact the result of the referendum and implement the decision of the majority of the electorate to leave the EU. This has clarified that the block to Brexit is British MPs from all political parties. Parliament is in revolt against the will of the people as expressed through direct democracy. In response, Johnson took the decision to suspend (or prorogue) Parliament for a few days more than is usual at this time of year.
Normally stiff upper-lipped journalists, academics, commentators, and politicians have not reacted well to Johnson’s decision. The cry went up that the UK was in the grip of a coup and people were ordered out onto the streets to protest. Hardcore Remainers, more than happy to see power drip from London to Brussels, suddenly discovered a new love for democracy.
Of course, the variety of democracy those yelling “coup” have in mind is of a very specific type. It is a representative democracy that places the views of a few hundred members of Parliament above the wishes of 17.4 million voters. Winston Churchill, previously decried as a “mass murderer,” is now celebrated for declaring the duties of an MP to be exercising faithful and disinterested judgement in determining what is “right and necessary for the honor and safety of Great Britain.” In urging MPs to act as representatives and not delegates of their constituents, Churchill was echoing the thought of philosopher Edmund Burke, often considered the father of modern conservatism.
Burke, writing in the second half of the 18th century, was concerned that the ideas driving the French Revolution might spread across the Channel. He saw elections as a way of taming revolutionary fervor, while at the same time providing legitimacy for the monarch and a political elite that could carry on ruling as they saw fit. He wanted to keep the ruling class protected from the passions of the common people.
A limited role for representative democracy, involving only a tiny proportion of the population, was considered by Burke and others to be useful as a way of filtering and taming the views of the masses. In the United States around this time, the belief that only some of the public were worthy of being able to vote and that even this select group needed their views to be mediated and limited was made explicit with the new constitution, which gave plenty of power to the president, the judiciary, and the Senate, and not just the “people’s house,” the House of Representatives.
Representative democracy, as initially established, was never intended to let the general public have political influence over the running of their lives or their country. It was meant to protect the interests of the ruling class. Ironically, in the UK today, it is self-declared radicals who are taking to the streets to champion Burke and Churchill, while the Conservative government, led by Boris Johnson, seeks to enact the view of the majority of the population.
The British Left are dressing themselves up in the language of democracy, but it is hollow rhetoric—their real intention is simply to keep the UK in the EU by any means necessary. Their hypocrisy has been exposed nicely by Johnson’s plan to call a general election. Surely anyone who really thought their country was in the grip of a coup and seriously believed in democracy would jump at the chance for a vote? It seems not. Labour MPs are tying themselves in knots opposing a general election.
For universal suffrage—and democracy—to be meaningful, not just in the UK but around the world, we urgently need to find ways to allow more people to have more of a say in the running of their lives and the future direction of their nation. A good place to start would be for our political representatives to be just that—to represent the views of their constituents and not assume they know better than us what’s in our best interests. In the UK right now, that means a general election. Bring it on!
Joanna Williams is the author of Women vs. Feminism: Why We All Need Liberating from the Gender Wars.