‘Our constitution is called a democracy because we govern in the interests of the majority, not just the few. Our laws give equal rights to all in private disputes, but public preferment depends on individual distinction and is determined largely by merit rather than rotation: and poverty is no barrier to office, if a man despite his humble condition has the ability to do some good to the city.’ Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Thucydides I.37)
Democracy is highly prized. So much so that in the national debate currently engulfing our politics everyone claims to be defending it. However bitterly divided the opposing sides become, however deeply each camp entrenches itself in the righteousness of its stance, democracy seems to be the one value we all share.
‘Democracy did not end on the 23rd June 2016,’ Jo Swinson proudly declared from a beach in Bournemouth, the waves crashing in behind her. Ms Swinson and her aptly named party are fighting hard to keep democracy alive. Never mind that the common refrain which emanates from such circles, that ‘the people did not know what they were voting for’, sounds all too much like a rejection of democracy itself.
At the other end of the spectrum, Nigel Farage was heard to proclaim in the leadup to the EU elections in May, ‘we want to bring democracy back to this country’. For those of a similar bent to Mr Farage recent events in Parliament, especially the so-called Benn Bill which facilitates a further extension, amount to a betrayal. The power of our representatives ultimately derives from the people who elect them, and so Parliament is obliged to respect certain parameters as defined by the people’s views. These views may often be hard to discern, but not so when a referendum has taken place. Many feel that these parameters have been breached.
On the other hand there are those who argue that, once elected, Members of Parliament possess an unencumbered mandate to exercise their judgement as they see fit, this being the essence of representative democracy. However, to delve into another controversy, those who emphasise the principle of parliamentary sovereignty must acknowledge that if Parliament ever felt uneasy about prorogation, it has had three hundred and fifty years or so to transfer this power from the Crown to itself — just as it did with the power of dissolution through the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis has been noted for saying, ‘if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’. But what is a reasonable interval to wait before going back to the people? The 1975 European Communities referendum was supplanted after a hiatus of forty-one years: should this be adopted as our benchmark? Or should we settle on something closer to the fiveyear intervals at which we elect new parliaments?
In one of the more sensational episodes of Athenian history the Assembly changed its mind after just one day. Following a successful siege of Mytilene they carried a proposal to execute all the surviving men, but on the following day they reopened the debate and decided that only the town’s leaders, not the common people, should suffer this fate.
If Athenian democracy is a worthy model to emulate, this story surely bolsters the case of those calling for a people’s vote. Crucially, however, the Athenians did what Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice insisted on in a recent Question Time: implement the original decision. A ship had already been sent to carry out the orders, and it was only in the nick of time that a second ship embarked at breakneck speed and prevented the slaughter. If the people voted to leave, we must leave, Mr Tice was saying; the option of rejoining the EU later down the line remains open.
So who is really on the side of democracy? We are all democrats — or at least we like to think we are.
Marcus Walford (President-Elect, Ex-Returning Officer, Lady Margret Hall) is an undergraduate in his second year of studying literae humaniores.