Monday 2 September 2019 4:13 am

Democracy means accepting that sometimes the other side gets to win

Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre

Following the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue parliament, we have seen a tsunami of outrage that British democracy is effectively dead.

Accusations and counter accusations are flying. Each side blames the other for undemocratic behaviour.

There is no doubt that the Brexit process is putting British democracy under strain. It might therefore be appropriate to reflect on what constitutes the essence of a functioning democracy, and why it is going wrong.

The fundamental strength of a democracy is that it encourages the flourishing of competing ideas. These are freely debated in the public sphere. Some carry the public with them; some do not. Others become modified through debate and discussion until something new that draws from all sides emerges. 

It is tempting to believe that the most important characteristic of a democracy is the desire and determination to win both the battle of ideas and elections. The reality is exactly the opposite. What makes democracy thrive is the acceptance by all parties that their ideas may not prevail. It is the determination to win at any cost that puts us on the path to totalitarianism.

That is why democracies have institutional systems of checks and balances to ensure that nobody can push their ideology without hindrance. 

Yet, as we have seen many times in history, institutions struggle to survive an all-out assault by those determined to get their own way. And this is particularly the case in the UK, lacking a written constitution and therefore highly dependent on respect for informal democratic norms.

The Brexit process is putting our democracy under strain because both sides are determined to get their way, with the ends justifying any means.

Encouraged by the now three-year old referendum, those who support Brexit are set on pushing their own particular version of it.

They will brook no discussion. They will not compromise to take into account the fact that 48 per cent of those who voted never wanted to leave the EU.

They will not countenance putting back to the people the reality of what Brexit means in practice. And they are now trying to hobble parliament in case it should interfere with their plans.

On the opposite side are those who would sweep away the result of a referendum that they consider either illegitimate or a big mistake. In spite of the result, they are determined that the UK will remain a member of the EU.

They, too, will brook no discussion. They will not compromise to take into account the fact that 52 per cent of those who voted wanted to leave the EU. Every parliamentary manoeuvre or legal challenge is considered legitimate to further their own aims.

It is this determination by both sides to win at any cost that is undermining British democracy. The democratic state of mind – that one doesn’t always get one’s way – has been swept aside. Institutional checks and balances are seen as an annoying hindrance rather than as an essential brake on unbridled power.  

A ferocious war to the death has replaced what should, in a democracy, be a delicate dance between competition and cooperation; between arguing for what you believe in and being ready to listen respectfully to the other side and accommodate.

We have been reduced to the politics of the children’s playground, where each side simply blames the other for having started the fight. 

History shows us where all this leads. Fractured societies have descended into civil war and have emerged from it as totalitarian states – at least for a significant period.

I do not believe that British society will descend into civil violence. Those who suggest otherwise in order to further their own aims are despicably irresponsible. But our political class, on all sides, needs to reverse the damage they are doing. To recapture the fundamental essence of democracy – discuss, debate, argue; but accept, and even celebrate, the fact that you will not always get your own way. 

It is possible that things have already gone too far, that neither side feels able to compromise, and that everyone will continue to hide behind the unreasonableness of the other as the only reason they are compelled to dig their heels in.

But we should all remember that those who remain doggedly determined to get their way at any cost are no democrats – whichever side of the debate they happen to be on.

Main image credit: Getty

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