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Endless Tantrum

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Endless Tantrum

Brexit should never have been put to a plebiscite, but it is childish to demand that the vote be overturned. August 30, 2019

You would have thought, from the howls of outrage that greeted Boris Johnson’s temporary suspension of Parliament, that he had appointed himself prime minister for life. Our democracy was in danger, said the demonstrators against it, when what they really meant was that Johnson’s maneuver had made it harder for Parliament to obstruct the wishes of the people as expressed in the Brexit referendum. Jacob Rees-Mogg was right when he said that the outrage was bogus: it was that of a spoiled child who doesn’t want to go to bed.

Whether the referendum was a good idea in the first place is another question entirely. I think that it was not. Plebiscitary democracy, in which a government puts questions to the population in the expectation of getting the answer it wants, is dangerous. The modern European tradition is to hold a plebiscite and then take no notice of the result if it is “wrong.” This, of course, is the worst of both worlds, but it is what the demonstrating “defenders” of democracy want.

If they had objected beforehand to the whole procedure of the referendum, for example—to the absurdity of deciding so complex a question on the basis of a single vote decided by 50 percent of the votes plus one—those who now decry what Johnson has done might have had a point, but they did not. They expected to win the referendum and only turned against it because of the unexpected result.

It is obvious to all—except perhaps the demonstrators—that Parliament has conducted a long rearguard action against putting into effect the vote that it, led by former prime minister David Cameron, called. The majority of Members of Parliament were opposed to Brexit: but instead of coming straight out with it, they prevaricated so long and so efficiently that they almost scuppered the whole process.

In normal circumstances, Members of Parliament are not obliged to vote according to what the population wants. They are representatives, not delegates with a clearly laid-down mandate to fulfill, and governments have to make hundreds of decisions without reference to the electorate’s wishes, except in a general way. But, having canvassed public opinion in a supposedly binding referendum on a vital subject, to ignore the result can only strengthen the impression that the political class is a law unto itself.

The demonstrators have thus got everything exactly the wrong way round: it is they who are the enemies of democracy.

Photo by JORAS/Getty Images

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