Amid divisions within divisions over Brexit, democracy – “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” – is the one thing that should unite us all.
Amid angry scenes in the House of Commons as MPs argued over what should happen next in the ongoing Brexit saga, BBC Radio 4 Today show presenter Nick Robinson tweeted: “If this Commons debate is anything to go by the election campaign isn’t going to be at all pretty.”
It is, to an extent, understandable that temperatures have been rising, given the feverish nature of the debate. The stakes are huge, the disagreements profound, and old loyalties to political parties have already been ripped apart, with some MPs cast out of what they regard as their natural home and others leaving of their own accord.
Splits have also appeared within the Leave and Remain camps. Hardline Brexiteers have long been at odds with more pragmatic fellow travellers, while the People’s Vote campaign has been rocked by internal disputes with staff walking out after two senior colleagues were asked to quit their posts. And the SNP’s Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, has attacked his party’s support for a plan to hold a general election on 9 December, saying it would be a “Christmas and birthday present all rolled into one” for Boris Johnson.
As the current impasse demonstrates, democracy can be a fraught process when a great divide emerges, leading to multiple sub-divisions that can become just as bitter – as famously lampooned by Monty Python in the film Life of Brian. The movement or party that manages to stay calm and respectful despite disagreements is the one most likely to succeed. Those who bitterly shun “splitters” doom themselves to irrelevance.
And the same could be said for democracy as a whole. If the country is to succeed, there needs to be a basic acceptance of the right to disagree.
Two years after losing the 1945 general election – despite leading Britain to victory in the Second World War – Winston Churchill remarked: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Whatever happens now – a general election, a second referendum, a further delay or Brexit – we must stay true to the values of democracy, regardless of how ugly things get.