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BREXIT and Democracy

The debates of the last few years have brought out very different ideas of what constitutes democracy, with the common use of the term ‘populist’ to discredit outcomes one dislikes. We believe, however, that procedural democracy with fair and free elections is the basis of good government and needs to be defended.

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In the December 12 General Election Britons voted decisively for a party committed to leaving the EU as three years before they had voted in a referendum for BREXIT, and this time more decisively. Over that three years the conflict between parliamentary or liberal democracy and direct or procedural democracy had produced a stalemate. Members of Parliament frustrated popular efforts to leave the EU because they believed that most people had not known what they were voting for in 2016, that they had been tricked or that they were not competent to judge so complex and technical an issue.

Procedural democracy has minimal requirements though it provides reasonably clear classifications of the principles involved. And some values do seem to be implicit or necessary for people to call a country democratic. These would include concepts such as freedom from fear and the organization of political parties.

Others believe that the adjective “substantive” or “liberal” must be added to our standard definitions of democracy. “Rule by the people” will not suffice. Thus, they generally oppose referendums because they may fulfil the basic procedure but undermine democracy by destroying its core values. Even parliamentary elections, they observe, may be won by a Narendra Modi who went on to persecute his Muslim minority, just as, in the case of the 2016 referendum, people made virtually irreversible and allegedly ignorant decisions on vitally important issues. The danger for liberals is that they can fall into the trap into which Hilary Clinton tumbled in 2016 when she dismissed her opponent’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. If people feel treated with disdain, they become more determined to stand by their views.

Thus, the standard definitions of “popular rule” is normally condemned by those who have what we might call the liberal approach as putting too much emphasis only on the methods of election. In their view it is dominated by the “fallacy of electoralism”. On the other hand, the liberal or substantive approach is haunted by another conceptual difficulty – what we might call the “the fallacy of elasticity”. The qualifications can be expanded so that, for example, election results must enshrine social and economic rights to produce a “just society” and other items. Truly “democratic” governments must act according to a set of goals and/or values. Democracies are thus entities defined not just by how rulers are chosen but how they act.  Those who opposed Brexit claim that they are still true democrats. For them it does not matter who won the referendum and subsequent election but its effects.

Many people oscillate between the two views of democracy depending on the issue at stake. If they dislike a certain party and oppose an election result, they may dismiss them as “populist”. In recent years this has made liberal democrats increasingly pessimistic, while procedural democrats have reason to be optimistic.

Over the previous 30 years the general attitude towards democracy has swung between optimism and pessimism. After the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s the pendulum swung towards excessive optimism. Later, after a brief period of democracy, Russia became a corrupt dictatorship; and the Arab Spring failed to produce stable democracies. Meanwhile in America, the “home of democracy”, its President openly admires his Russian, North Korean and Turkish autocratic counterparts while criticising his democratic European allies. Previously many imagined that China would become more open if it shrugged off its communist economic orthodoxy, but it developed a highly dynamic form of state capitalism and intensified the repression of its people.

Nor was the pessimism confined to domestic politics and economics, the threat of global warming further blackened the prevalent mood and the menace of nuclear war re-emerged as if in jealous competition for the title of greatest threat. Those anxious about these developments accuse democratic governments of being far too slow to respond. But climate change can be discussed openly and continuously in ways that are impossible in autocracies. One reason why the Soviet government collapsed was that it had tried to hide the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. When it fell, the extent of the damage to Lake Baykal and other important sites the government had allowed could be revealed to the world. More recently the Chinese government was initially hesitant to admit that a new corona virus had emerged in Wuhan and that it was going to be difficult to contain.

In contrast and despite views to the contrary, the procedural democrats have reasons to be optimistic about the way that the democratic system has worked in both Britain and the United States with brakes on executive power playing their allotted role. When the British people voted for BREXIT in 2016, Parliamentarians delayed the process for 10 months while the issue was debated. However frustrating and embarrassing this seemed at the time for a nation which claims to have pioneered modern democracy, it may have produced a better form of BREXIT and given people a second chance to confirm their earlier decision. Similarly, in the United States, when the voting system gave Donald Trump a majority, many Democrats believed he was unsuitable to lead the country and abused his power. After Congress failed to impeach him people will have another chance in the forthcoming election to decide whether he should remain in office.

Elsewhere, in many places where people have been given a glimmer of hope, they have shown their support for free speech and elections. Although they knew very well what had happened to previous demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, the people of Hong Kong have demonstrated in their hundreds of thousands to make clear that they care about some form of democracy and they are prepared to risk their lives to have their voices heard. In January 2020 the Taiwanese showed the same courage. Beijing tried, not for the first time, to influence their election by threatening them with war. As previously, the Taiwanese responded by throwing down the gauntlet to Beijing and told the authoritarians there that they were not going to be cowed, that the struggle of the people of Hong Kong against autocracy was their struggle and they would fight for the freedom of their island. That is ‘procedural democracy’ at its best: not a call for perfection, but a claim that procedural democracy with fair and free elections is the benchmark of good government and thus needs to be defended.


Professor Robert J. Jackson is Distinguished Professor at Carleton University Ottawa, and Emeritus Fletcher Jones Professor of International Relations at the University of Redlands, California.  Dr Philip Towle is Emeritus Reader in International Relations, and former Director of the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge.

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Robert Jackson

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Philip Towle