We rightly cherish the notion of liberal democracy, it’s the least worst system of government, but it isn’t perfect. In its purist form, direct democracy, government is hardly necessary at all, using technology familiar to any internet user, every issue deemed of interest to voters could be placed before them in a poll. But the dangers of this system are all too apparent; decisions would always favour the lowest common denominator so in most developed countries where democracy is established it has evolved in the form of representative democracy, where the electorate are offered a choice of candidates who will represent them in parliament and vote on their behalf.
As the voter is invariably given a choice of voting for the political party to which the candidate is aligned these candidates when elected won’t reflect the all the views of all the people who elected them and the more extreme opinions will be leavened. Those elected to parliament will have a variety of views, even within each party so these checks and balances are intended to protect us from the tyranny of the mob.
Occasionally democratic governments seek the opinion of the electorate for a single issue by means of a referendum. Even democratic governments rarely if ever use a referendum in order to genuinely seek the views of the electorate; rather they do so to justify a political action that they intend to take in which case they need to be pretty certain of winning it. But referenda inevitably throw up another problem and that is regardless of the question some voters will use it to protest about issues unrelated to it.
The referendum to leave the EU was a classic case of a reckless government that used it to subdue the Eurosceptic wing of the conservative party and that totally misjudged the mood of the electorate who after 10 years of austerity and stagnant wage growth, took the opportunity to give a bloody nose to the government who supported Remain by voting to Leave.
In the intervening year the government (now with a slender majority after the GE) has sought the impossible, to “have our cake and eat it”. Despite warnings from the EU and most independent political and economic opinion saying this was an unrealistic fantasy the government persists and they do so for one reason, “the will of the people” as demonstrated by the referendum cannot be flouted and supporters of Brexit claim a democratic mandate.
But can we reverse the referendum decision and still stay true to our liberal democratic credentials? Yes we can for three reasons:
1 If David Cameron had offered referendum on the return of Capital Punishment and a majority voted to hang criminals should we honour that as well? The answer should be No; even if the decision was achieved by a majority hanging is so fundamentally at odds with our liberal democratic values that it should be rejected. So there is an ethical precedent to reject a referendum result.
2 In the run up to the Brexit referendum an extreme anti EU sentiment was stirred up by the EU hating press that for the last 40 years has waged war on our membership of the EU. Of course a free press is fundamental to a liberal democracy but in this campaign aided by unscrupulous politicians, they published lies and encouraged xenophobia and this travesty of the truth was exemplified by the now infamous “£350 per week for the NHS” on the side of the red bus that swayed many voters despite in being totally untrue. So there is precedent for challenging a result that was obtained by fraudulent means.
3 Legally the Brexit Referendum was “advisory” so the government is under no obligation to abide by the result although clearly they feel obliged to do so for political reasons. So there is a legal precedent for rejecting the result.
Fear of offending liberal democratic values should not be an obstacle for rejecting Brexit, so politicians and especially business leaders and organisations should nail their colours to the mast before more damage is done.