I know I should stop screenshotting the metro-lib tantrum happening all over Facebook, but this image – with multiple shares among my acquaintance – genuinely appalled me.
Though I don’t know the source, the table is clearly taken from a book critical of the EU, as it shows the number of times referenda in EU nations have been ignored by the EU institutions, or routed round by other means.
And yet it is being shared excitedly, hopefully, by Remain voters delighted to see that the EU institutions they love so much have form for ignoring referenda. This is a good thing! The people know not what they do! Wiser, more powerful heads will prevail. Teacher will step in and adjudicate. Everything will go back to normal.
These are normal, decent middle-class people, with whom I thought I shared basic values, among which was an appreciation of the importance and power of democracy. You win some, you lose some, but you engage and campaign and argue your case. And the majority wins, and if that’s not your side then you campaign again and maybe you carry the day next time. That’s how democratic politics is supposed to work. And its power is supposed to lie, ultimately, with the electorate.
Are these people really, truly, not the slightest bit troubled by the idea of a set of political institutions willing blithely to ignore the will of the people if it returns the wrong result? To keep holding referenda until they return the right one? Is their understanding of what democracy is, how it functions, its importance truly so debased that this track record of indifference to fundamental democratic principles is actually seen as a sign of hope?
For decades now, our elites have increasingly sought ways to insulate their decision-making processes from democratic scrutiny. Though it is not the root, the EU has been a paragon of this process. While retaining the formal appearance of democracy, it has used treaties and bureaucratic rulemaking progressively to narrow the Overton window across its territory, until national governments are so constrained in the policy options they are permitted to put to the people that our electorates have, rightly, lost interest in democratic participation as ‘They’re all the same’ and ‘nothing ever changes’. In so doing, it has debased the popular, public appreciation of the power and importance of democratic participation to the point where it is estimated that only 36% of young people bothered to vote in this epoch-defining referendum. (Though those that did reportedly plumped 3 to 1 for Remain, while even those that did not are now howling with rage at the awful oldies who did bother, and whose votes for Leave carried the day).
These young people learned a harsh lesson today: when you’re doing democracy properly, everyone’s voice really does count. When real, serious, important issues are up for discussion and a democratic vote,, instead of being locked away in smoky back rooms as the subject of horse-trading between unelected technocrats, then voting really can change the world. This is how it’s supposed to work – scrappy, argumentative, passionate, engaged, powerful, world-changing – not the etiolated simulacrum of ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ we’ve been increasingly fed since long before I voted in my first General Election, the year Blair swept to power.
And yet, rather than seeing the excitement, the power and potential of this transformative event that has seen democracy enacted in the United Kingdom for the first time in decades, people of my acquaintance are pointing to examples of the European Union’s disregard of similar such events as a beacon of hope. Hope that the stifling centrist consensus can once again be re-imposed, hope that choice can once again be narrowed to a consequence-free wavering between mobile phone contract types or holiday destinations. Hope that teacher will come back in, stop the children rioting and set us all a pre-prepared worksheet. Put us back in our boxes.
This might have been an aberration, posted in haste and without critical thinking by someone in a haze of emotion following a momentous political event. But if it wasn’t, and those hoping for an end to this brief democratic excursus genuinely think it’d be better all round for us to get a pat on the head before business as usual resumes, then we do after all not deserve the democracy I believe our country is capable of. We should hang our heads in shame, apologise for messing up the lesson for everyone else, pick up our pencils and resume colouring within the lines.