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“‘Leave’ are undemocratic.” Are you sure?

June 28, 2016

I hate democracy. Apparently. According to the Brexit people. Because I’m not happy with the result of the referendum, and would jump at the chance to redo it.

Brexit people have a Brain Superiority. If they had lost, we all know they would have gone quietly. They would have smiled moistly and said: “Que sera, sera.” Under no circumstances would they have complained that the vote was too tight, and tried their level best to have it overturned if they caught a whiff of half a chance.

I think that was Farage’s suggestion, originally, when he was expecting to lose. Well, no one can take him seriously, obviously. Or rather, you immediately cease to take him seriously the moment he says something that could backfire on your cause.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost track of the definition of democracy. During the run-up to the referendum, people spoke about it as though democracy is the system by which everyone votes on every issue and every representative all the time; the fact that the European Commission was unelected got all up in everyone’s britches.

Our unelected Upper House, the House of Lords, is appointed by people we elected – that is to say, by people we entrusted to make all manner of decisions in our stead. It’s a triangular structure, whereby a large group (the public) elect a small group (government) to form even smaller groups (committees, quangos, etc.) with the intention of making the system easy to operate (you only vote once) while effectively divvying up responsibility among those better placed to take it on. Such people are free from the distractions of party politics, a major advantage.

Civil servants are also unelected, and do quite a lot of the work. Down with civil servants! Undemocratic! I don’t remember electing any judges, either, who help form case law. Down with them!

After the referendum, the definition of democracy changed to: “What the slim majority of the people who voted think.” In practical terms, this definition works better, but it’s not exactly foolproof. The democracy of voting is reliant on it being representative of the public. To some extent it is. But to the extent that some people do not show up to vote, it’s not.

There were people who went to Glastonbury, and couldn’t be bothered with a postal vote; people who didn’t leave the house, because it was puddly outside; people who thought that a legitimate “protest” vote included just not showing up at the polling station; and people who thought that spoiling the ballot paper achieved something except annoying the counters.

That’s their problem,” you might say. Yes and no. If they were on your side, it’s your problem. When it’s a close race, like this referendum, of course a lot of people on the losing side are annoyed that a few no-shows for bad reasons could have turned the tables.

Especially when you consider that the majority was tight enough that the skew towards Brexit could easily have been decided not by reasonable voters at all, but by extremists who can think of no better use of their time than to wade through puddles to tick their preferred box, and would never in a million years go anywhere near an gathering of cosmopolitan iniquity like Glastonbury.

All across the internet sphere, I see comparisons between this referendum and other less important things, the most trivial of which is football. “Sore losers!” is the rallying cry of the “winners”; terminology that sums up the mentality around the vote, as if it has all been just a game.

It reminds me of the time we were asked to vote as to whether to change the GE voting system to the Alternative Vote rather than First Past the Post. There was a flyer through the door with a photograph of a 100m sprint, and an arrow pointing to the loser saying “The winner, under AV.”

If it wanted to be remotely accurate, the arrow should have pointed to second position. That’s assuming that this race took place in a dystopian Loopy-Left future that Daily Mail columnists worry about, whereby there are no winners by skill, but rather the sports day crowd vote for the winner in order to not upset anyone or encourage antisocial macho competitiveness.

These sporting analogies are purposefully ridiculous, a reductio ad absurdum. In the case of the EU referendum, the football comparison goes thus: perhaps if X team beats Y team, the game should be replayed until Y team beats X team. Well, yes, perhaps it should, if for some reason half of Y team was rained in or played hooky to Glastonbury.

The first thing to understand about reductio ad absurdum is that the two comparative objects are usually incomparable. Schrödinger’s cat was not comparable to quanta, because the whole point of quanta is that they don’t behave in the same way as large, complex things like cats. Football is not comparable to a referendum, because sport is not like politics.

The winner isn’t the team that did the best, because “doing the best” isn’t a straightforward concept in politics. “The best” to your mind might be the those who disseminate the clearest information, or it might be the most effective pedlars of propaganda. The point of view held by the Remain camp is that the Leave campaign were better pedlars of propaganda, and that once reality takes a hold, a large number of fence-sitters and ideologically convinced people will realise they made a mistake.

I understand that you can’t keep the offer on the table forever. It would be a strange democracy indeed if the authorities simply spent their days whistling with their hands in their pockets, waiting for the public to make the “right” decision in their own sweet time. But I suggest that in this particular situation, it might not be a dreadful idea to hold back on jumping down the the rabbit hole for a bit longer to see if there is merit to the notion that this may not have been the democratic vote people thought it was.

After all, it is quite a big decision. It will cause a big furore if the vote is overturned. There will be people saying we might as well try and overturn it again, and others saying this makes the whole concept a joke. These viewpoints assume that being fickle about EU membership is worse than leaving the EU. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I have no idea, but at the very least the effects of leaving the EU are measurable and concrete.

I’m not sure the definition of “democracy” is a simple one. It depends on which of these aspects you think is most important, many of which often contradict each other: freedom / libertarianism (freedom from state influence); representativeness (of everyone, including people who may arguable not be fit to vote, for various reasons); demographic representation (the extent to which majorities / minorities of a particular type should be considered more carefully, because their needs or interests take precedence); relevancy of time and culture (whether the choices offered are the right ones for the climate of the time and place); protection (the job of the elected government to shield its citizens from potentially damaging choices). The problem with talking about democracy is that we talk around democracy without properly defining what it means to each of us. There’s definitely a left-right distinction, with a right-wing lean to libertarianism and a left-wing lean towards protection.

A distinct tone of the (largely leftist) Remain backlash is ageist, saying that old people have messed things up for young people. Therein, we see a difference in opinion as to the importance in democracy placed on a particular demographic. Young people, it is suggested, matter more in this debate than old people because young people will reap the consequences of this decision more than older people. The image such arguers have in mind is of young people being prevented from working abroad, just for the sake of a few old people not having to hear foreign accents in shops.

Putting to one side the question of how fair this evaluation is, it’s clear that such individuals consider the interests of the young people to be worth more than the interests of old people, because of democracy, not because they are against democracy. Democracy is supposed to represent the interests of the majority of people, and in one interpretation of the word, the young people that currently exist are the majority, because they will not stay the same age but rather grow up and take the place of the older people.

Young people not yet of voting age, who where asked generally agree with the 18-25 age bracket, will take their place one day. Younger people still who do not understand the issue would have grown up in the EU as the current 18-25s did, and would almost certainly have formed the same attachment to the concept of European and global institutions.

In other words, without this referendum, in 60 years time most people will probably have not questioned the union. It is the way of changing political opinion that social attitudes filter down. Pro-EU was the filtering sentiment which would almost certainly have kept filtering down, just as anti-racist and anti-homophobia continues to filter down.

Therefore, arguably younger people have more of a stake, and more of a right to choose, not just for themselves but for the next generation who are likely to agree with them but cannot yet vote. Passing over the morbidity of the fact that the elderly voters may not live to see the upshot of their collective decision, the issue of employment is probably more significant – older people are leaving the job market, younger people are entering. If we are to believe that the Brexit arguments were more to do with the economy than prejudice, then this point is particularly relevant.

Moreover, it is a point we can only debate after the referendum. Before it, we did not know for certain what the voting demographics were going to be. Now that we do know, we can properly consider whether the weighting of the votes was fair.

Vote-weighting is a controversial issue; it makes up an integral part of American presidential elections and some people consider this unfair. Certain states are weighted numerically higher than others based on their population size. London and Scotland could have received a higher weighting for their opinion – perhaps for their economic input, which is substantially greater in London than in smaller parts of England. If that had been the case, the Remain campaign would have won.

The consequence of that choice could be damaging. By weighting the richer cities higher than the poorer towns, and the younger generations higher than the older, you fracture society and alienate people who do not fit the dream demographic, telling them that their opinions are simply worth less. That concept upsets us personally, but perhaps it should not upset us so much politically.

Imagine that a business is electing its new head of board. As well as all the people in the company being able to vote, people from outside the company can vote as well; people from rival companies, or people who know nothing about it. As a result, only the people within the company choose the best candidate for the job, because only they are affected by the result, and only they fully understand the implications.

But people from a rival company who dislike their rival’s proposed new board member not only vote him out, but canvass neutral members of the public towards their way of thinking. In the end, a group of unconnected people vote out the best prospect for the company that they are not a member of.

Anybody could see this scenario as unjust, but we have trouble scaling it up to whole societies and areas of public policy. We have this sense that it is the right of man to have his opinions equally weighted to his fellows on the subject of politics, even if his vested interest and his relevant knowledge is lower. But recall that in this EU election, we did indeed purposefully bar from the vote a whole set of people who had a vested interest in the result; EU migrants themselves. We can recognise that the referendum would have been completely pointless if we gave mgrants the vote; the Remain campaign would have won easily.

To the Brexit mind, this is unjust. Why is it unjust? They live here. At one time, we embraced them. We told them perpetually that we value their input. Yet, they did not get to make their voices known via numbers, specifically because their voices would have drowned out the voices of those who disagreed with them; specifically because they make up too much of society.

What was our process for determining who had the right to vote, then, if it wasn’t by asking the majority of people currently living and working in our society? It was via the presumption of the importance of the British vote over the EU national vote, and a presumption that the bias of the EU national was in some way too potent or less valid than the bias of the British nationalist.

The concept of democracy, a reflection of all peoples in a society, was stretched further than sharing-bread. It wasn’t a representation of our society, it was a representation of British-born, British-cultured people. To my mind, that’s not a comprehensive definition of “society” in this country any more.

Democracy as we know it is not a blueprint for every society to come. It’s a lose concept, that exists the way it does as a protection against autocracy. It prevents powerful elements from seizing total control. It does not mean that a positive aspect of democracy is this tendency to rank, or fail to rank where appropriate, the interests of different parties.

One major feature of so-called flawed democracies is low voter turnout. In the EU referendum, the turnout was substantially higher than for a GE, yet there were still a number of people, mainly young, who didn’t vote. It turns out that young people generally support staying in the EU, so a lower turnout of young people works out fantastically for Brexit supporters. That strikes me as a “democratic” vote built on a house of cards; these people won’t always be young party-goers. One day they’ll be forced to care about the impact of the decisions of the past.

This is, presumably, why places like Australia fine people for not voting. They incentivise with the stick. I imagine the British public would be outraged at the suggestion that they should be effectively forced to vote; part of the Brexit flavour was anti being-ordered-about by faceless political decision-makers.

The Australian system gives us a window into the variable definition of democracy, in this case, prioritising representativeness over libertarian freedom. In order to engage a larger voting public, Australia restricts the choices of its own citizens. For people who think that democracy is synonymous with freedom, that is not democracy.

My observation suggests that, at the moment, it’s the Brexiters who tend to think democracy and freedom are, or should be, the same thing. The Remain lot are more inclined to muse about how we should have had IQ tests to prevent stupid people from voting.

Of course, there is every chance that if Brexit had lost, the embittered Leave campaigners would be saying the same thing, in the hope of catching out idiotic Remain supporters. In either case, this is a reduction of representativeness; the implication is that only smart people should vote.

There are all sorts of problems with that. For one, the IQ test is a poor test of intelligence, and most particularly social intelligence. Having an IQ of 99 (one point less than average) does not prevent you from understanding social issues. Social issues are understood through time and education, not natural aptitude for pattern spotting and spatial reasoning ability.

For another, this is social eugenics. In eugenics, humans are bred for specific positive characteristics, of which intelligence ranks highly on the agenda. Lack of intelligence is bred out via selective breeding.

Social eugenics seeks to cut out “unintelligent” (by some arbitrary or inadequate measure) people from the process of decision making – in effect, removing the autonomy of those deemed unintelligent, under the justification that they can’t be trusted with responsibility. In fact, that notion was held by benevolent dictators of ages past, who attempted to negate the effect of the peasants’ undoubtedly poor decision making by making all their decisions for them.

This is more often a feature of narcissism than benevolence. The same thought process is observable here: people disagreed with me, against their own good; therefore it is upon me and my peers to decide their good. That idea never went away because it is clear that people do indeed make decisions against their own good. The aim has increasingly been to attempt to prevent this via education, rather than assuming inherent inferiority.

In mind of that, a better solution would have been to test people on their knowledge of the facts before allowing a vote. Rather than immediately discounting the vote of people who fail, the test could simply be a gateway to the ballot paper. Once you answer the series of questions correctly, you could cast your vote.

The “test” format is just a way of making sure people have reason to check their facts. This system wouldn’t catch people who know the facts but don’t care because their major agenda is an ideological fascination with British sovereignty or suchlike, but it would catch the people who come to the ballot box without knowing anything.

I think this is a feature of the future, rather than an imminent possibility. You can’t vote online yet, because of security issues, so a current affairs test gateway is not pragmatic. There’s also a chance that unless compelled to complete the test, this would drop voting turnout further.

What effect would that have on democracy? Once again, that depends on your definition. Is democracy just the yelling of the masses into the empty space, all sound and fury signifying nothing? Or is it the use of reason and knowledge to make the best possible decision for oneself and one’s own interests? For people who are now raging about the number of people who did not vote, they must think that quantity matters; the more voices heard, the better.

To some extent, it does matter. The more voices heard, the more pressure on the government to take action; democracy’s shady roots are in fear of mass riots from peasants if their interests are not reflected. We, the peasants, are stronger in numbers. But it would be a mistake to undervalue a quality vote compared to a vote that lacks quality; that is to say, an informed vote, versus a vote that is uninformed. Enough loud voices will drown out fewer, more reasonable voices.

One problem is that when knowledge is required but education is not compelled, the people turned away are the people who most need the education yet have least access to it in their cultural circle, and who care most viscerally about the subject, for the very reason that they don’t fully understand the issues.

Create a gatekeeping process whereby the privileged few find it easiest to vote because the characteristics required (like education level) are the ones they automatically have because of their background, then anyone without that background and those characteristics gets frozen out of political decision making.

We can already see how difference in background changes political engagement; most significant names in parliament are from a particular educational background, and votes feel distanced from them, their interests and their rhetoric. In the worst-case scenario, the frustration of this could lead to greater backlashes against establishment powers, or scapegoat minorities.

Instead, culture walks the line between informing and dumbing down, in order to reach Middle-Britain at only fractionally above its level. The hope is to inform, but not to alienate. Of course, Middle-Britain covers a band of quite different people, not just one type, so the reach of education media may not be as broad as hoped by public information providers.

The general pattern however seems to be bits of information, balanced with a lot of rhetoric. This goes for everything from history documentaries to political broadcasts. The art of persuasion is one part truth and five parts exaggeration.

Throughout the process of voting on the EU Leave or Remain, there has been less motivation from vested parties to inform, and more to persuade. This puts public information a delicate balance, and politicians have their hands tied. If they don’t exaggerate, they can be damned sure the opposition will. They need careful spin to make their point sound better. Everyone knows you can’t trust what a politician says, yet, we have to make some kind of decision between the two extremes of obvious hyperbole.

Despite what we tell ourselves, none of us are immune to the trap of being convinced by something which later turns out to be untrue. A curious Brexit argument has been: “If the Remain campaign hadn’t gone around telling us we’re all racist, they might not have lost.” This suggests that if the Remain campaign had been the more reasonable and factual, they would have beaten the less reasonable and less factual Brexit arguments.

This claim isn’t supported by evidence. Politicians believe in spin, because they have seen it work. Any politician with lofty ideas about telling the straightforward truth during a debate would lose that debate.

The only way to give politicians the incentive not to use scaremongering as a convincing tactic is by removing the effectiveness of scaremongering and other cynical tactics. If a neutral party created a test that vetted the voting public on their knowledge, scaremongering would be a waste of time, and half-truths would slip through the net of public consciousness less often. It would only lead the followers of any particular point of view to repeatedly fail the test.

In order to work, this test would have to be immune to access and molestation by political parties, who could otherwise simply reformulate their spin around the specific facts isolated by the independent vetting group, made of economists, statisticians and experts from the social sciences. One thing that was clear from the referendum was the amount of fact manipulation.

These ideas, off the top of my head, are not supposed to be a fixed solution to a complex problem, but rather to highlight a key point – since some of you will have thought it a good idea, and others a terrible idea, based not on pragmatic but ideological grounds, it’s clear that our idea of what processes constitute democracy are not consistent between citizens. So before we boast that a referendum is the most democratic process conceived, let’s first define for ourselves what democracy is, and more importantly, what it is for.


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