So everyone with institutional power wants one thing, but there’s been a referendum saying to do the opposite. If Britain were a different sort of country I feel pretty confident there’d be a coup around now. I guess its absence is something to celebrate? Is letting the electorate make shitty, self-destructive decisions the acid test for respecting democracy? Maybe.
I’m of the view that ‘democracy’ is one virtue among several (including multiple centres of power; liberal rights; religious tolerance) important to a good and functioning society, not a trump card that beats everything. There are lots of things 51% of the electorate would approve of that we shouldn’t do. I’m sure I don’t need to list examples; your imagination can do the work.
Our institutions are designed to provide accountability to the population while acknowledging that informed representatives are better placed to make decisions on specific complex issues than voters. It would have been completely legitimate for parliament to remain in the EU and not ask the public directly for an opinion on the issue. But is it ‘democratic’ to ask them first and *then* not do it? That I rather doubt.
Finding a way to overturn this result is, basically, looking for a way to circumvent majority will democratically expressed in the most direct form (in as much as those concepts have practical meaning). Sure, the electorate was poorly informed and focused on the things we’d prefer they didn’t. But those aren’t soluble problems. When it comes to referendums that’s a feature, not a bug.
Don’t misunderstand me: perhaps given the importance of this issue, finding a way to short-circuit the result via parliamentary side-step or the farce of a second referendum is the right thing to do nevertheless. Maybe it’s because we correctly intuit that the majority one day may not be the majority the next. Or maybe it’s because we believe that sometimes, in a crunch, there are more important things than majoritarianism and the popular will. But if that’s what we’re saying, let’s be honest with ourselves about it, not dress it up. We’re saying there should be limits on the role of the general populace in making decisions, because we don’t think they’re equipped to make them right.
As both right and left have been very keen to point out, the European Union is a liberal project, in the broad sense of the word. I think it would be healthy if those of us who favour it, and grieve this result, accept that what’s been offended against here is our liberalism, not our democracy. And that perhaps, though the two overlap more often than not, when they conflict the former is more important to us than the latter. I for one think I’m ok with that.