Just a few days ago we awoke to the news that firebrand British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had finally caved in to the wishes of his party to support a second Brexit referendum – the so-called ‘people’s vote’. The fact that many MPs in both the Labour and Conservative parties support this is predictable, as we have seen elected members of parliament at every turn try to frustrate, oppose and delay the Brexit process.
Despite the obvious instruction given to the political class in the 2016 Referendum that British citizens wanted to leave the EU, it is clear through their actions over the past two and a half years that they simply do not respect the outcome of the referendum, nor indeed British voters themselves.
At every instance, they seek to justify a second referendum with the hope that the result will be overturned. They wish to blissfully awake with the events of the past two years having been all just a dream. No more talk of backstops, hard borders or customs delays. They argue that British voters were ignorant, or didn’t think hard enough, or were brainwashed by slogans on the side of big red buses.
What the dangerous precedent of a second referendum doesn’t consider is the radical idea that perhaps the people weighed up the pros and cons and decided they would be better off without the EU.
While some may argue that a second referendum is in fact the most democratic of processes, the argument that 2016 Brexit was undefined and 2019 Brexit is binary is farcical. If anything, the politicians only have themselves to blame for not convincing the public to support remaining in the EU. At least David Cameron was man enough to resign upon seeing this.
A second referendum reinforces the narrative that if the ruling class simply does not want accept that the people disagree with them – “the man in Whitehall knows best” – they will do everything they can to use the laws and organs of the state to maintain their stand. A second referendum legitimises the notion that, if the people decide and the political class don’t like their view, they can just try over and over until the result is bent to their will.
We see the same modus operandi from politicians in every corner of Western politics. As the intelligentsia scramble for answers in combatting the rise of populism, it only requires a look in the mirror to diagnose the antidemocratic disease that is plaguing Western society. Major parties and institutions plainly disregard the concerns of their constituents and self-righteously believe they know what’s better for voters than the voters themselves.
This kind of arrogant attitude must be stamped out or nations will continue to vote for extremism and the very nature of Western democracy will come under threat.
We have seen British MPs in strongly pro-leave constituencies frustrate the Brexit process and do all in their power to soften, delay or even thwart it. For example, some 56 per cent of voters in Labour MP David Hanson’s Welsh constituency backed leave in the referendum, yet Hanson has said he will do all he can to revoke article 50 and reverse Brexit. Hanson, when asked how he could betray the will of his electorate, stated ‘I’m in a leave constituency, but I would do what’s right.’
These kinds of politicians believe what they think is ‘right’ (often for their own personal gain) trumps what their voters want – and overwhelmingly voted for.
Across the pond, President Trump’s clear electoral mandate for a border wall has been blocked by House Democrats who clamber over the top of each other to prove who can be the loudest to proclaim that border security is racist.
In Australia, Labor, Green and Independent MPs have pushed through back-door legislation to weaken Australia’s border protection despite strong public support and two consecutive Coalition electoral mandates for its current border policy.
This blatant lack of respect towards public opinion has seen a sharp rise in protest votes for fringe parties not only in Australia but also across Europe and the US. The latest Newspoll suggests that almost a quarter of Australians will vote for minor parties in the upcoming election.
It has also led to the election of populist governments in the US, Italy, Hungary and Brazil. French voters have taken to the streets for months in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s progressive agenda, many of whose policies (like his fuel tax) were not outlined before his election.
To understand the causes of the malaise and frustration felt by voters, one must look at the way modern democracies were intended to work. Rousseau articulated the view in his 1762 work The Social Contract that the truest form of democracy is based on the notion of popular sovereignty – that is, people give their consent to be governed, and in return expect that decisions are based on the general will of the people.
This powerful idea was a catalyst behind two major historical events in the eighteenth century which have shaped Western politics amore than many events since.
Firstly, the American Revolution in 1776 erupted over British rule and taxation in the colonies without any American say in the laws and the phrase “no taxation without representation”.
A decade later, the French Revolution overthrew the feudal aristocratic rule of government and introduced democracy through universal male suffrage.
Such was the desire for both nations to be able to chart their own course based on popular sovereignty that they resorted to blood and war to achieve it. Ironically, it is France and the US who greatly suffer from the same problems today.
The absence of truly representative government today is best described by German sociologist Robert Michels, who labelled it ‘The Iron Law of Oligarchy’. In his 1911 book, Political Parties, Michels argued that governments based on even the most democratic of principles will eventually transition to oligarchies controlled by a wealthy and powerful few.
Michels outlined that states are too large for the people to make decisions daily and thus a bureaucracy is essential for government to function. For the bureaucracy to operate effectively power must be centralised and thus a small group will be responsible for governing. Those few will then use any means to maintain their grip on this power, as happened in the Soviet Union. Despite being founded on egalitarian communist principles, it fermented an elite nomenklatura of party officials, bureaucrats – and secret police to maintain their rule.
This same issue is more relevant than ever as our politics becomes ever-increasingly polarised.
In Australia, the Lowy Institute survey in 2018 found that 54 per cent of voters thought that the number of migrants coming to Australia was too high and 87 per cent believed that foreign companies should not be allowed to buy Australian farmland. However, pressure from big business and foreign investors thwarted any efforts to act upon the wishes of public opinion.
Don’t we elect politicians to represent the views of their constituents?
Voters frustrate and despair as they constantly observe governments ignoring the national interest and instead governing for vested interests. According to the 2018 Democracy Perception Index poll, 64 per cent of us worldwide now think that governments do not act in our best interests.
The established political system, especially in Australia and the US, has so entrenched the major parties that it is impossible to see a significant change any time soon. Meanwhile, as voters continue to express their anger at the ballot box and on the streets, anti-establishment candidates will continue to gain influence and popularity.
This vicious cycle is causing our politics are becoming more polarised, threatening democratic systems of government around the globe with extremism; left and right.
Tom Waite is a student at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Melbourne University Liberal Club.
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