A second referendum is the only democratic solution; to obey the result of the first vote corrupts democracy & legitimises disinformation.
“You’ve got a Leave population and a Remain Parliament. Parliament has not got the right to hijack the Brexit process because Parliament has said to the people of this country: We make a contract with you, you will make the decision and we will honour it.”
This statement by Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade for Theresa May’s government, captures the frustration of millions throughout the United Kingdom. This breed of discontent in Parliament and the belief that it acts in its own interest, not the population’s, is nothing new, only now Brexit has fueled enough passion to thrust it to the center of the political limelight. History shows us this mistrust has some legitimate basis; however, for the Brexit debate it is dangerously misplaced. . .
Following Mr Fox’s logic, the majority will of the population must never be opposed; if so, then what use is an MP? What use is Parliament? Because if this were true, MPs only add another hurdle – a liability – between the electorate and government policy. So why are MPs here?
“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate.” – Winston Churchill
Parliament exists because the average citizen cannot be expected to consider, in detail, the arguments and statistics that must be grasped to create sound legislation. It must be someone’s professional priority for them to form the necessary understanding. This is why it is an MP’s duty to do what they judge to be best for their constituents and the nation; to research and debate policy beyond what their constituents would reasonably be capable of given their other priorities – not to do whatever their constituents believe should be done.
So MPs absolutely have the right to defy their electorate; but why is this defiance, today, so tied to British democracy?
A ballot-vote, such as the Brexit referendum, is only a part of a democratic process. For a ballot to be democratic, it must first be free and fair, which the vote was and there are no grounds to dispute that. But the information given to the electorate must also be accurate and true. A vote fueled by fictional, false, or invalid knowledge is equally invalid itself. If a vote is not informed by reality, in a democratic system it cannot be allowed to have bearing on reality. If it is – then propaganda is, by inference, completely legal.
The whole Brexit debate is a symptom of the wider problem that is misinformation and failure of education. Headline-grabbing claims were like money for the NHS; bogus EU regulations, the notion that we don’t have a say in the EU, and the baseless claims of economic prosperity were the core of the leave campaign, while some equally nuts declarations surfaced on the remain side as-well. Despite this, regulating what political campaigns can and cannot say is a an extremely slippery slope from fact-checking towards censorship, so if we want to act to limit the effect disinformation can have on national debates, perhaps regulators should focus more on the types of literature where voters receive political arguments. In recent years, the most notorious has been online advertising, although the argument extends to physical political advertisement too.
Advertisements, by their nature, use dubious techniques to forward their arguments; visual tricks, slogans, half-baked arguments and minimal detail are all tried and true tactics for advertisers. While it can be argued these are desirable attributes for most cases of consumerism; does it need to explained how shocking and dangerous it is that these methods of persuasion can be applied within our political sphere? Surely they are a direct contradiction to the qualities of a functional democracy. Especially when the policies they influence are ultimately life, death or livelihood for thousands each year.
Ads are purchased, with money, with the expectation of results. A person’s vote should not be bought.
Cable and print media also suffer from many of these downfalls, but there are several important differences. Firstly, they are not projected into your life if you do not wish them to be, nor do they appear in browser, interrupt your radio or display themselves on your morning commute if you do not want them too. You can decide to buy or not to buy a newspaper, to watch the evening news or not. You know who they are, who funds them and what their biases are. They do not mine through your data looking for personal strings to pull within you. They present their information in the same way to everyone and they do not bombard you throughout the day, infiltrating your reality. Secondly, they revolve around debate and argument, although we may have to skip between a few to get a balanced perspective, each source will at least attempt to outline and quantify the arguments surrounding the issue. Cable media in particular often tries to include academic thinking in their coverage, although there are still cases of bias. These two traits together mean than the voter can decide where their information comes from and potentially protect themselves from any indoctrination.
If political advertisements and their style of political argument are outlawed, the challenge will be significantly shifted from the fine line of speech regulation to education – education on how to interpret data in an ever-more complex and counter-intuitive world. If that can then be solved, Brexit may just be the first of many arguments to unravel themselves and reach a conclusion.
Disinformation is nothing new in politics, but in recent years it has reached unprecedented levels, and from a British perspective, this seems to be the first time it has had a definitive effect on the outcome of such a hugely important decision. How we should deal with this in the long-run is a separate debate, but considering there is no effective legislation against it currently, there is a strong argument that MPs, by doing their utmost to block the Brexit process, are actually executing their sworn duty to act on the behalf of their constituents. Because they know, if it is allowed to move forward, a portion of their electorate will not receive the reality they believed they were voting for. It is akin to voting for a political party who immediately renege on their campaign pledges upon victory. I respect that many Brexit-voters will still hold steadfast by their decision. But many are confident that those voters alone would not make a majority if we traveled back to 2016.
During run-up the 2016 referendum, both sides of the isle deployed questionable tactics to woo voters to their side. By writing this article I do not mean paint the Leave Campaign as an evil propaganda machine or the Remain Campaign as a bastion of truth; many of the arguments for leaving the EU – devolution of Sovereignty and identity to name a few – are valid reasons (albeit subjective) and some of remain’s arguments were clearly bogus. This article is here to raise awareness of a new threat to our democratic system in the age of the internet, the effects it is creating, and to be a reminder as to why we elect representatives rather than polling the government’s every action.
. . .Those who clamor that Parliament does not have the right to defy the referendum result are the real threats to British Democracy. Knowledge and academia must be respected. If you don’t trust your MP, don’t vote for them; if the majority thinks the same, your problem will solve itself.
Editor and correspondent Michael is a student at the University of York in the UK.
Featured Image Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/02/britains-labour-threatens-pm-may-with-new-brexit-hurdle.html