Brexit Moves Britain Toward Tried and Trusted Methods of Democracy

Brexit Moves Britain Toward Tried and Trusted Methods of Democracy

Democratisation usually refers to the bringing of democracy from without to a hitherto undemocratic state. But I think its most fitting application is in reference to the United Kingdom and how it arrived at its current democratic system: gradually, mostly peacefully and from within. Beginning with Magna Carta in 1215, the Westminster Parliamentary system is the result of a gradual shifting of power away from an absolute monarch to a representative parliament. But it is a testament to the peaceful nature of the process that Britain still lives under a monarchy, even though from it most real power has been withdrawn.

One thing this ensures is that no political office can be the most powerful position in the country without at least the symbolic language and posture of serving the monarch. The Queen, with no political power, serves the people of her realm as head of state, through no choice of her own, and for the duration of her life; the Prime Minister, through his own choice, that of his party, and finally that of his fellow countrymen, serves the Queen for comparatively brief terms, divided by renewed opportunities for choice.

This is an important reminder to our politicians; its character stifles the lust for power. And, without a monarch, what could be put in its place to retain that posture? A document? A celebrity? Ought Britain to resemble France or America, both of whose democratic systems are the product of tremendous bloodshed and represent a total break with their past? The monarchy’s continued existence is not a mere relic, but an essential part of a living and successful system that is without parallel in history. A compelling case could be made that the monarchy has never served a more important function.

The democratisation of Britain wasn’t all smooth. There was a revolution; a king was even executed. But the country quickly thought better of it and restored the monarchy. Bad kings, sad queens and a degree of happenstance all contributed to this process, but at every juncture a forward step was made into the uncharted territory of representative democracy. Britain led the way and, to put it quite simply, the system it arrived at works, and has served its people well. It did not need to sever ties with the past; in fact, its greatest strength is that it is infrangibly linked with the past.

Its current shape may not appear, upon first glance, to make much sense, but when looked at in relation to its history, it does so in a proud and patient British way. Furthermore, it is only by preserving this link with its history that Britain can be equipped for the future, and this has always been so.

It is not only Britain’s parliamentary democracy which has this character of building upon, and in cooperation with its history rather than breaking away from it. The legal system has evolved alongside the political in tandem. The story is similar. Britain tried Roman law for a while, but then thought better of it, and returned to Common Law. The following passage from Dorothy Sayers illustrates the uniqueness of English Common Law:

Whenever you turn to this island, you meet the same phenomenon – a proliferating diversity which, impenetrable as a lush jungle, impedes the advance of the foreign explorer. A fine example is the English Common Law, which has no code and scarcely any statutes. It is all case law, an intricate cat’s cradle of precedents. It appears to know nothing of right and wrong, but only of rights and wrongs established by long custom, and to base its authority on no general principle, but only upon an endless series of improvisations…

Learned foreigners come and watch British Law in operation; they observe that it works; they even admire its justice; but the trick of it is not communicable. Reforming zealots…long to take dustpan and broom to it – clear out the old junk and reduce it to a spring-cleaned order. But that would not do; the magic is in the disorder – clear it up, destroy the bewildering old documents, codify the result and set it out neatly upon the shelves as in a public library, and we should find that we could no longer lay hand on those things that we call our liberties; for the easier you make the law, the more readily can you drive a coach and horses through it. Oppression strides over code law as an invading army marches down an arterial road, but the Common Law of England is a maze, baffling and secure; to march through it you would have to hew it down and root it up completely.

I can add very little to that except to say that English Common law in the UK is, at present, superseded by European law, which is precisely a codified set of laws that blatantly undermines Britain’s own well-functioning legal system.

Chesterton describes tradition, variously, as ‘democracy extended through time’, ‘the extension of the franchise’, and ‘the democracy of the dead’. His point is that, just as we entrust decisions to the great mass of ordinary people living today, we ought equally to listen to the voices from history; just as those who think they know better are prevented from ignoring those they deem ignorant, so also ought the living to be prevented from ignoring the dead. In relying upon tradition we inherit a wisdom we would otherwise lack, which better prepares us for circumstances we cannot foresee. Chesterton concludes that he ‘cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.’

This sums up everything I am trying to say about British democracy. Tradition is the central characteristic of both its system of government and its legal system. By it, not only can no one person can assert his opinions over any other person, but also, no one age, with its own unique concerns, can assert its opinions over any others. It is democracy augmented. No one age could have invented it and therein lies its democratic genius. It is not frozen or stagnant with the particular concerns of one generation written down in a document for all future generations. It evolves, builds upon itself.

The irony of most republics is that, in ambitiously asserting their will over a rejected past, the architects invariably assert it over the future as well, resulting in the opposite predicament, where they themselves become the past which future voters can no longer cooperate with but are overruled by. Consider, for instance, the Second Amendment in the USA.

This aspect of British democracy is unique among European democracies as far as I’m aware. Germany and Italy only became unified countries in 1871 and didn’t reach their current forms of democracy until after Hitler and Mussolini and the Second World War. Spain became a republic in 1931 but had to wait for the death of Franco in 1975 before it could think about any kind of democratisation, and spent much of 2016 without any government at all.

France became a republic in 1792 after the French Revolution and reign of terror, during which the King was guillotined and 40,000 were killed in order to secure a democratic eventuality, and is now on its fifth republic. Each of these examples shows a democracy born of a complete break with the past and, in all cases but France, a very young democracy, which is at best a superficial copy of Britain’s or America’s.

My point is that the best form of democracy and judicial process is to be found in Britain. It is older, wiser, calmer, and it came about more peacefully. It did not require a revolution, and despite its many idiosyncrasies, or maybe because of them, it is more successful. It is guided by the votes of its people, while heeding the voices of its past. If you were going to build a union of nations and base it on one of the democratic systems on offer, surely there’s only one option.

And yet in joining the European Union, Britain allowed itself to become subjects of an entirely different political and judicial system that is both unproven and immature. Because it is not built on the British model, it is neither consistent nor compatible with it, and therefore the EU has always represented an unjustifiable usurpation of the Westminster Parliamentary system and English Common Law. EU law supersedes UK law. UK businesses must comply with EU regulations. The EU has been lord over both Britain’s government and head of state for decades, and I’m not sure most people have ever really understood how it works.

In the UK, at any rate, sovereignty rests on the will of the people, who, symbolically represented by the Crown, periodically lend that sovereignty to local representatives in the form of Members of Parliament. These MPs sit in the House of Commons and their efforts on behalf of the people are balanced by the House of Lords, which exists to question and challenge the work of the government. In former times the Lords exercised much greater power, but thanks to the wisdom of our democratisation process, they now serve a secondary, advisory role. The longevity of their service alone offers a valuable perspective, different from the MPs, who are often preoccupied with winning the next election.

The EU is structured differently. Unlike the British Parliament, where the elected house is more powerful than the appointed house, members of the EU Parliament can’t introduce legislation. The unelected Commission has that authority, and the MEPs merely review, debate and propose amendments. That means that at the very top of the EU, laws are initiated only by Commissioners to whom the British people did not directly extend their sovereignty.

If Britain is opposed to an EU law, it doesn’t have the voting power to do anything more than voice an objection in many cases, yet if the British Parliament passes a law that the EU doesn’t like, it can overrule it. Those to whom sovereignty has been entrusted are being overruled by those to whom it hasn’t. It’s backwards, and in submitting to it in the first place, the UK made an unwarranted and short-sighted break with the very tradition that has already bequeathed to it a vastly superior form of democracy that alone has stood the test of time.

The success of the Westminster system is not a single occurrence. It has been exported with tremendous success to many countries, most notably members of the British Commonwealth, with which the UK has much else in common – monarchy, legal system, language, and, in many respects, culture. Incidentally, some form of union of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Singapore would be a worthy experiment without involving any usurpation of the democracy those countries enjoy. The only advantage over this that the EU can boast is the physical proximity of its member states.

Fortunately, the denizens of the UK have requested that their form of democracy, with its emphasis on local representation, be set free of this incongruous supranational government, whose decisions are so far removed from them, that they (especially the poor) felt their voices were no longer being heard. No one is more of an expert than anyone else on how to live a life, and that is why everyone gets an equal say in decisions that affect how we are governed – the ignorant, the knowledgeable, the educated, the uneducated, the wealthy, the poor, the young and the old alike.

As a democracy, the people put their trust in that corporate expression, rather than in an oligarchy. We won’t always get it right but we ought to be grateful that every voice has the opportunity to be heard. Much of European history is darkened by chapters in which millions of voices were denied that opportunity. Sovereignty must remain with the people and must only be lent to those politicians elected through whatever system the people deem worthy. In voting to leave the EU, the people have rejected the EU system as a competent steward of their sovereignty, and have asked for a return to the trusted methods of the Westminster Parliamentary system. Long may it be so.

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Written by
Andrew Mahon