Jo Johnson, when resigning from the government last week, said it would be a democratic travesty to not have a second referendum. Was he right? Brexiteers claim that, since there has been a referendum, the matter is settled democratically. Are they right?
No, they are both wrong. “Democratic” does not solve the country’s and Parliament’s dilemma.
A policy is democratic if it has been decided by correct democratic procedure. Hence, the referendum was democratic and the follow-up on the referendum has been democratic. But also, whatever Parliament decides at the end of the process will be democratic.
Even if a policy has been decided democratically, that does not necessarily make it a good policy. Democracy gives the people power and makes it less likely than otherwise that their representatives will embark on policies that are not in the national interest. But people power is no guarantee that representatives will not make bad decisions. Democratic decisions often turn out to be unworkable.
The fact that a policy has been decided democratically is not a reason to stick with the policy if it turns out to be counterproductive. Parliament overturns or changes its own democratic decisions all the time.
Britain is set to leave the EU on 29 March next year. If that remains Parliament’s decision, it will be democratic. That may or may not be a good decision but it will be democratic.
If Parliament decides against Britain leaving the EU, that will be democratic. Again, it may or may not be a good decision but it will be democratic.
If Parliament decides on a second referendum, that will be democratic. Yet again, that may or may not be a good policy but it will be democratic.
Parliament is in a terrible predicament. MPs want to behave democratically but “democratic” does not let them off the hook. Asking what is democratic solves nothing. The question before MPs, which they cannot avoid, is what decision is right for the country. Democracy, obviously, does not stand in the way of a democratic Parliament doing what it thinks is right for country and citizens.