Joyce McMillan: This current democracy just does not add up

Referendums, like the one in Hungary on refugees, are not necessarily a true expression of democracy in action.
Referendums, like the one in Hungary on refugees, are not necessarily a true expression of democracy in action.
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ON STAGE at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, the chorus of 30 young women from across the city - the true protagonists of the drama, and all volunteers - are asking about democracy. What is this thing called democracy, they chant, and how does it work?

It’s a good and timely question, since the vote they’re discussing is a straightforward yes/no referendum on whether, as newly-arrived foreigners seeking asylum, they should be allowed into the country; but what’s thrilling about David Greig’s new version of The Suppliant Women, which marks the beginning of his artistic directorship at the Lyceum, is that the play is almost 2,500 years old, written by Aeschylus in 423 B.C. for the great drama competition at the annual Athens games. The play is really little more than a fragment, the first part of a lost trilogy. Yet it contains what is thought to be the first-ever written reference to the idea of “democracy”; and it talks of democracy as something far from simple, that can reflect the emotions of a moment rather than a mature judgment, and that may even bring a people into conflict with the all-powerful gods.

All of which forms a striking backdrop to the age of political crisis through which we now seem to be living; one where a string of referendums both in the UK and elsewhere - in Colombia, where the people just voted against a historic peace deal with the FARC guerrilla movement, or in Hungary, where 98% of voters, on a low turnout affected by a boycott, voted to repudiate the country’s clear international obligations to Syrian refugees - has raised profound questions about what kind of democracy best serves our real long-term interests. And these questions seem all the more pressing, now that UK politics is dominated by a party which has rarely shown the slightest interest in constitutional matters, beyond an unthinking defence of the status quo. At the Conservative Conference this week, for example, Theresa May made the sweeping assertion that people who think they are citizens of the world are actually citizens of nowhere; demonstrating in a single remark how someone immersed in UK Tory politics for the last 40 years has been able simply to ignore the whole concept of multiple and layered citizenship - Scottish, British, European, international, for example - that so many UK citizens now enjoy, and that has been, among other things, the key to 18 years of peace in Northern Ireland.

That display of reactionary instinct was matched, though, by the two breathtaking central assumptions of the Tory conference: that Theresa May now has an unchallengeable right to “speak for Britain”, and that the Brexit vote represents an overwhelming endorsement of the kind of repellent policies towards foreign-born people living in the UK announced or hinted at this week. On the first count, Theresa May enjoys her current position as Prime Minister purely on the strength of the 37% of the vote won by David Cameron (a very different Tory leader) in the general election of 2015; it would therefore become Tory politicians to show at least a minimum of respect for Scotland’s First Minister, who - while being dismissed by them as having no right to “speak for Scotland” - enjoys a level of support at the ballot box with which Mrs May cannot yet begin to compete.

And then there is the matter of the EU referendum, a vote skewed by a relentlessly mendacious campaign, which produced a tiny majority for a vast constitutional change with incalculable consequences, and left half the nation distraught, bereft and in shock. Any remotely responsible political leader, faced with that outcome, would be trying to heal those wounds, build bridges, reassure those most personally affected, and achieve the kind of “soft Brexit” that probably most closely matches the will of a deeply divided people.

Instead, though, Mrs. May has apparently decided to come out fighting as a born-again “hard Brexiter”. And in framing such an extreme shift in British government policy - out of the single market, away from freedom of movement - as an appropriate response to such a finely-balanced and complex event, she seems to me to demonstrate both an immense lack of political sensitivity, and a complete failure to understand any of the constitutional checks and balances normally deployed by a functioning democracy.

These range from a traditional British insistence on parliamentary democracy rather than plebiscites, through a careful two-phase referendum process for major constitutional change (principle then detail), to an American-style insistence on a two-thirds majority. Yet the British Tory party is now set to take radical action on the basis of a narrow general election victory followed by a hopelessly divisive referendum campaign.

The EU referendum process, in other words, demonstrates how democratic systems must be carefully worked out by deliberative processes in a whole society, if there is to be any chance of wise and enduring decisions that will be respected by the whole community. The Greeks feared that they would anger the Gods with bad decisions; today, we might fear outraging the constitutional wisdom built up over the years here in Europe and beyond, or breaching the international law so painstakingly put in place after the horror of the 1930’s.

This week in Birmingham, though, the Tories gave us a display of constitutional thuggery and indifference that shows respect for nothing and no-one - no principle, no institution, no opinion, no centre of power - beyond the single, slender popular vote it currently suits them to endorse. It’s profoundly un-British, it’s desperately ugly, and it can only lead to more despair and conflict in an already divided society. Yet this is the government we must live with, for the foreseeable future; until some viable opposition emerges from the ashes of New Labour and the Liberal Democrats, or until Scotland finally decides to take its chances, and walk away.