The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Brexit uncovers the central tension in representative democracy

Photo: The Independent

By Raghu Vinayak Sinha

The Economist recently published a video which analysed the current debacle over the terms of Brexit that PM Theresa May had to go through in the British Parliament and rightly pointed towards an interesting collision between representative and direct democracy. The Economist claims that the country and the Parliament have been divided on the Brexit issue owing to a rare occasion of a direct democratic action – the Brexit Referendum – was conducted by the Government which makes the MPs unsure of how they should vote in Parliament.

While the referendum held in Ireland over abortion laws in May have yielded better accessibility and development of abortion services, the referendum in England have led to a rather tragic onslaught of confusion and uncertainty. Many groups have asked for another referendum on the same issue since the Parliament has failed to reach a suitable conclusion. One cannot help but wonder whether a second referendum shall, in fact, lead to a definitive result – after all even the first referendum was won by the ‘Leave’ group by a sliver.

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister who stood alongside the ‘Remain’ group in 2016, argues that a second referendum shall be impossible to conduct as the Parliament will never be able to agree on the exact question to be asked in the referendum and it would be held without the consent of half of the country (a leading newspaper has stated that the polls show that the people of England are not in favour of another referendum). He has further implored for a ‘People’s Debate’ to further the discussions around Brexit instead of negotiating a new deadline and getting trapped in the same or a similar dichotomy with a second referendum.

The inability of the British Parliament to agree on a set of terms to break away from the European Union reveals a deep tension that a direct democratic action brought to a stable representative government. The issue is that the referendum only asks a narrow question to the public with no space for any nuanced understanding of the reasons behind the position that the voter takes. Varoufakis also points to a voter who voted ‘Leave’ to simply register dissent against the government of that day and she would have perhaps voted ‘Remain’ under a different leadership. The position that each voter takes in a referendum may be based on a myriad of reasons and interests which find no place in the final outcome where the voter is reduced to mere number.

Political theorists such as Richard Bellamy in Political Constitutionalism (2007) and Jeremy Waldron in Law and Disagreement (1999) have argued that the Legislature is cornerstone of political democracy owing to its extensive debates and discussions. However, a deeper analysis is needed when it comes to a stage where the sentiment of the public is not mirrored in the debates in the Legislature. In fact, it is difficult in the case of Brexit to even know what the public sentiment really is with regard to the many intricate details of the terms of the exit from the EU. Even a second referendum cannot be expected to correctly map all the diverse views of the public as a referendum by its very design does not provide that opportunity.

Another jurist Jurgen Habermas (1998-1999) has written extensively about creating a forum for ‘deliberations’ wherein the views of each member of the nation can get a voice. The discussion on this forum proceeds not only on principle but also pragmatic considerations, bargains and compromise. Such a forum may sound too ideal, but Legislators need to turn to their constituencies and look to create a neutral ground where the public can voice their opinions and anguishes. The same need to be mirrored in the Parliament by the MPs for a truer picture of what the country wants. Since the Government indulged in a direct democratic act, it cannot leave it halfway now and only depend on the narrow referendum result. It needs to broaden the space for individual concerns lest they end up with an undemocratic outcome at the end of it all.

This also points towards a broader duty of any elected representative towards their constituency. In an idyllic scenario, a person is voted as a representative only owing to their worldviews or manifesto points but the considerations in a democracy or indeed any election are much more nuanced than simply the vision of a potential representative. Only by the virtue of being voted to office, it cannot be assumed that each position or decision that the representative takes is one that the constituents would support. The representative must go back to the voters and get a sense of the public sentiment – regularly and extensively.

Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has already shown that a simple vote between three or more options can be proven to not be the true representation of the public choice. In case of a referendum where only two options are given to the people, choices are further stifled.

While polls and referendums may be reliable when the results are majorly in one favour, there is no doubt that these quick methods do not deal in details and nuance. When representatives do not routinely check on the voters and act on estimation of public choice or according to their sensibilities, the voters are robbed off of their agency. More dangerously, democracy is reduced to a mere voting, the opportunity of which comes by only once in a few years, at best.

Raghu Vinayak Sinha is President, Student Council at Jindal Global Law School and Final Year Law Student.


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