One of the central claims of those supporting leaving the EU is that the current arrangements represent an unacceptable democratic deficit. This is writ large over Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article announcing his support of the Leave vote.
Above all, we will be told that whatever the democratic deficiencies, we would be better off remaining in because of the “influence” we have. This is less and less persuasive to me…Democracy matters…We have given so much to the world, in ideas and culture, but the most valuable British export and the one for which we are most famous is the one that is now increasingly in question: parliamentary democracy – the way the people express their power.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to vote for real change in Britain’s relations with Europe. This is the only opportunity we will ever have to show that we care about self-rule. A vote to Remain will be taken in Brussels as a green light for more federalism, and for the erosion of democracy.
There is a similar line of argument in the declaration by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove.
The ability to choose who governs us, and the freedom to change laws we do not like, were secured for us in the past by radicals and liberals who took power from unaccountable elites and placed it in the hands of the people. As a result of their efforts we developed, and exported to nations like the US, India, Canada and Australia a system of democratic self-government which has brought prosperity and peace to millions.
Our democracy stood the test of time. We showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves.
There is no denying the immediate appeal of these position: Britain governed by Britons! But neither is there much denying that such statements are over simplistic, for two major reasons. First, since we live in a globalised economy, we do not and cannot simply ‘govern ourselves’. As Werner Jeanrond points out:
Full national sovereignty is and remains impossible in our world – not just for Britain. The issues associated with, for example, transnational companies, environmental resources, disease vectors, organised crime cannot be solved by one country…‘British laws for British people’, as the battle cry would like to have it, won’t any longer solve many British problems.
You only have to think about the recent argument about Google’s tax arrangements to see how a ‘sovereignty’ argument about law is naive in at least one important regard. But even when thinking about issues of national governance, the argument is not quite so simple. The organisation of the EU is less an example of loss of sovereignty, and more an example of ‘pooled’ sovereignty, something which happens in multiple ways through hundreds of treaties governing all aspects of our national life.
Britain is subject to some 700 international treaties involving multi-lateral submissions to multilateral compromises. Its membership of the UN similarly infringes its self-determination, for it can be outvoted there just as it can in Brussels. Likewise the WTO, NATO, the COP climate talks, the IMF, the World Bank, nuclear test ban treaties and accords on energy, water, maritime law and air traffic all require Britain to tolerate the sort of trade-offs that Eurosceptic souverainistes find distasteful: influence in exchange for irksome standardisation, laws and rules set mostly by foreigners not elected by Britons (regulations that Britain would not apply, or would apply differently, if left to its own devices). Yet it submits to all of these knowing that, as with the EU, it is free to leave whenever it wants—but at a price not worth paying.
For Christians thinking about the EU referendum, one of the challenges here is to think theologically about democracy, and it is not a straightforward task. This is in part because the documents of the Old and New Testaments were written at a time when democracy as we have it now was simply unknown, and because there are different forms that democracy can take. In his final edition of Issues Facing Christians Today (revised in fact by Roy McCloughry), the late John Stott takes a very broad brush approach, locating democracy as a mid-point between the extremes of autocracy on the one hand and anarchy on the other (pp 38–43). He does this for theological reasons. Autocracy suggests a ‘low’ theology of humanity, in that people need to be held in check. Anarchy suggests a ‘high’ view of humanity, in that people can be trusted to act well on their own. Democracy sees human as both virtuous and flawed, deserving the freedom to act but needing systems of power to keep them in check.
Jonathan Chaplin of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics offers a more detailed exploration of possible reasons to believe in democracy. He identifies three main ideas supporting Christian belief in the democratic process.
Christian consent theories hold that both divine and human appointment are required for the establishment of legitimate political authority.
The second and third kinds of justification for democracy are neatly summed up in the two parts of Reinhold Niebuhr’s celebrated maxim: ‘man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ The first part of this maxim expresses the thrust of the participatory theory. This theory endorses the principle of popular election as an expression of the human capacity to assume responsibility for the doing of justice.
In the defensive theory, democracy is justified as a necessary check on the inescapable tendency of fallible office-holders to abuse their power: democratic election is one vital constitutional restraint on the corruption of power.
Chaplin’s second and third points here correspond to Stott’s summary reason, and all three offer a combined justification for democracy as the preferred Christian approach to government.
There is, then, a ‘cloud of witnesses’ in the Christian tradition, the cumulative impact of which is to counsel an embrace of the principle of popular election by Christians today. Indeed I suggest that we need to honour the insights of all three theories and integrate them in a robust Christian account of constitutional democracy.
This still leaves two large questions to explore: what form should democracy take? and what is the ‘basic unit’ of democracy when it comes to electing representatives? These are the questions raised sharply by the EU referendum. After all, the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty into a larger electoral area has an impact in both directions, even if we are only aware of one half of it.
Consider the trade-off: let foreigners have some influence over your country of 64m and in return receive quite a lot of influence over a union of more than 500m. When Eurosceptics only mention the first half of this bargain, they imply that Britain is too weedy to take advantage of the second. Which is odd, as the national strengths they otherwise celebrate give the country a tremendous ability to do so.
And it is worth considering the ways in which the pooled sovereignty has actually affected life in Britain, as illustrated by this poster produced by the Unite union. I think it rather over claims the role of Europe; after all, we do have our own equality legislation which calls for equal pay for men and women. But it is striking that the European ‘intrusions’ into British life are all pulling in a ‘social democratic’ direction, and restricting our unfettered embrace of free market economics. Conservative eurosceptics will blame this process for limiting our economic growth—but in fact these are things that the majority of the population of the UK want and would vote for, except that, because of our first past the post electoral system and the way the political parties are divided, we have always ended up withe governments who are to the right of the electorate.
In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives.
So the effect of the ‘democratic deficit’ in Europe that arises from our pooled democracy is to correct the ‘democratic deficit’ that we have in our own UK electoral system. If you want to eliminate the one, it is surely logical to want to eliminate the other for the same reasons. Membership of the EU has, as it turns out, made us more democratic than we would otherwise have been, and if we leave the EU, then we will need to make the correction that Europe has been making for us.
If you therefore side with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in wanting to leave the EU, you also need to side with Colin Buchanan in seeking electoral reform.
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