Damaged democracy and Brexit

By Savi Hensman
February 2, 2019

As concern grows about the harm which Brexit may cause, some people still insist that it should not be reconsidered because it reflects the 'will of the people'. Many Leave and indeed Remain supporters seem not too bothered by grave flaws affecting the vote. Perhaps people in the UK too often take democracy for granted.

Whether or not those who voted for Brexit made the right choice, it now seems likely (though not certain) that Remain would have won if the law had not been broken. It may be argued that people expect politicians and other campaigners to be biased, even deceitful. But laws exist for a purpose.

Weekly, more about the nature and extent of the lawbreaking comes to light. Some Leave activists have been wholly scrupulous. Yet investigative journalists continue to unearth worrying information about ways in which some of the rich and powerful have ignored the rules which safeguard democracy. And certain organisations intent on a ‘hard Brexit’ have, at least, trodden close to the wire : greater transparency is highly desirable.

If an MP or mayor were elected by a narrow margin and it then turned out that the election was rigged, hopefully even most supporters would want a truly fair ballot. Getting one’s own way on a particular occasion is not worth it if one loses democratic rights in the longer term. Yet sections of the media have failed to report what happened or discuss the impact if the wealthy could get away with swaying major decisions by breaking the law, then paying a few fines.

Some of those in favour of Leave might indeed feel unheard and angry if the Brexit decision were overturned, except perhaps by the courts. This may add to the argument for a citizens’ assembly or other approach based on participatory democracy. But there is still a need to reawaken concern about democracy in the UK.

Those of us originally from countries where vote-rigging opened the door to all kinds of other abuses are often all too alert to the risks. Yet many people worldwide tend to think “It couldn’t happen here” – until it does.

That the government may be considering spending public money apparently to win support for a particular Brexit deal  is another example: such areas deserve more cash anyway and this should not rely on MPs voting a particular way. A reported £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in 2017 to secure Conservative control of Parliament also sparked concern. If proposals to shift local government funds from hard-up areas to better-off Conservative councils are driven in part by the wish to hold on to votes, not just by ideology, this too weakens democracy.

Attempts in the UK to block voters without ‘proper’ photo identity  are another matter of concern. These worryingly echo measures which it is feared result in voter suppression in the USA.

Ministers’ use of misleading statistics, for instance on the NHS, social security  and education , is another source of concern. If not only the public but also Parliament may be making key decisions which affect millions on the basis of incorrect information, this weakens democracy.

Flaws in the Brexit process highlight, as well as other concerns, wider lapses in democracy in the UK. Firm action may be needed to halt a further downward slide.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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