The People’s Vote? Let’s fix democracy instead
A polling card drops through the door for the local elections. I catch myself feeling slightly weary. No need to lecture me on those who died for my right to vote. I know. Indeed there is still something moving about that little pencil in the polling booth, the hurried cross, the secrecy, the idea that this matters. Voting – yes, that’s good, so let’s have more of it, except when it isn’t. In which case, the answer is more voting …
I am confused, for instance, about the People’s Vote campaign, which says it is not really trying to get a second referendum about Brexit. One of the key remain arguments is that people did not understand what they were voting for the first time. Somehow, next time they will. Perhaps it is true that voting got us into this mess and voting will get us out. Yet I sense no appetite for another vote. Clarity is indeed welcome, but isn’t “the people’s vote” as slippery a term as “the will of the people”?
The will of the people is fastmoving and changeable. It is the way we reduce complexity by denying it. The will of the people may be ambivalent, uncertain, a product of anxiety – and yet this relentless quest for certainty, for unimpeachable rightness, remains the fantasy of public life.
The older I get, the more I envy it. All those people who, without having been there, know exactly what should be done in Syria; who know exactly which way Brexit is heading because they once saw something on YouTube. It is considered a weakness, a failure, to be able to hold two positions in your mind at once. I voted remain, but am still quite Brexity. I think something should be done in Syria, but also that it is all too late and that all we can do now is take in refugees.
So I am weak-minded, you may say, or a “don’t know”, which may be a peculiar thing to say in this job, but in fact is commonplace. When we don’t know, though, we want other people to know for us.
More votes now, is the cry – in parliament, on the Brexit deal or military action. Big decisions cannot be made without consulting us. This is what led to distrust of the EU: a feeling that democratic control was being bypassed. Add to this the implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and there is a further feeling that we have been duped, or at least others have. We feel both that voting is all we have got, but also that voting is somehow not enough.
It all makes for a disquieting mood. The public is not sure about military action in Syria. Many are resigned to Brexit, not because they love it, but because it is done. Referendums, we all realise, are not good for complex issues. Again, what is?
A cabinet that decides to bomb without consulting the House of Commons may still win a vote if it can whip MPs. In other words, the systems by which the will of the people is expressed are compromised. How might we make better ones? Talking of proportional representation, or even the idea that democracy might be representative of its people in terms of class, gender and race, feels like a niche interest. But it isn’t. For the reality is that a lot of the time the “don’t knows” have it. Which politician wants to acknowledge this?