The wrong side of two referendums

FlagsIn the past two years I have found myself on the wrong side of two referendums:

The first of these was in the 18th September 2014 when the people of Scotland in a referendum decided by 55% to 45% not to become an independent country.

The second of these was on the 24th June 2016 when the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union.

(Why I would support leaving one ‘union’ but not another ‘union’ is the stuff for another post except to say that the nature of the ‘unions’ are qualitatively different.)

The two above referendum decisions led to a situation where:

Scots voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU by 62% to 38% – with all 32 council areas backing Remain see BBC News.

For me (and many others) this results highlights the democratic deficit in the self-governance of Scotland. This is not, in my opinion, the indication of a good democratic system for Scotland.

I have stated this here and there and perhaps rightly have been challenged on why as one who claims to support democracy can I not accept two democratic decisions.

I will try and explain:

First, the language of ‘accept’ operates on so many levels.

I clearly do accept these decisions in that I recognize that they were legitimate decisions, made by a majority of people in a defined area – and I do not try and overthrow these decisions by violence or force. I would call this ‘formal acceptance’.

The language of ‘accept’ as defined above, however, is very limited and often does not capture the full range of our complex responses to democratic decisions. For to be sure, we may both ‘formally accept’ a decision and also believe, think, feel, that it was the right decision, a good, decision, an informed decision, a moral decision. This latter acceptance I will call ‘convictional acceptance’.

On the other hand, however, we may ‘formally accept’ a decision because that is what it means to be part of a democracy but convictionally think that it is a bad decision, the wrong decision, a misinformed decision, an immoral decision. In such as situation while formally accepting one can quite rightly seek to see it changed. Such change is sought though ongoing discussion, debate and persuasion. (In some instances it may also result in non-violent civil disobedience which accepts the consequences). Part of such ongoing debate may be to highlight the consequences of previous decisions in the light of latter ones e.g. people may vote a party into power believing they convictionally represent the right ideas, that party may then institute legislation which the same people think is wrong, – in such an instance they may opine: ‘I wish I had never voted for them’. This statement does not necessarily change the fact that people recognize that the party was legally elected, it does however show a convictional change in that they may no longer think the election of that party a good decision and may vote differently in future.

To summarize the above – in a democracy formal acceptance does not require to equate with convictional acceptance and a feature of the latter is to seek change through democratic process. So it is quite consistent to support democracy and to convictionally oppose democratically made decisions – we do it all the time. A decision indeed narrow or broad should not silence difference in some sort of totalitarian way. It may frustrate the ‘winners’ but ongoing disagreement and discussion is part of being a democracy – not in opposition to it. Change good and bad comes through this dynamic process.

The second main thing, and following on from the above is that I do not regard democracy as being defined by fixed decisions but rather an ongoing and changing process of participation, discussion, debate and decision making. All democratic decisions are provisional and changeable. People change, populations change, and the material circumstances in which decisions are made change. Democratic participation except on the most basic level is more than voting and formally accepting decisions but involves ongoing participation and discussion about ‘what is’ as well as ‘what can be’. To say – ‘democratic decisions have been made and you should simply accept them (convictionally)’, therefore, is not to fully understand the democratic process except at the crude level to which it has been reduced by a party political system.

In relation to democracy as ongoing participation and debate two ‘theological’ reflections:

The provisonality of all political decisions and indeed all forms of governance is affirmed in a belief that the kingdom is yet to come.

In the ‘waiting’ the goal of Christian participation should be in the direction of fairer and more just systems for all people.

I have been on the wrong side of two referendums. I formally accept the legality of both. I do not think that either of these decisions were good decisions for different reasons. I do not accept them at that level of my convictions concerning best decision. I think that the second decision highlights something of the problems of the first.

The people of Scotland voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU by 62% to 38% – with all 32 council areas backing Remain but will be forced to leave – yes I have a problem with this.

I would like to see both decisions changed. Such a position is not contrary to democracy but fundamentally consistent with being a supporter of democracy.



One Comment

  1. This so insightfully captures the dilemma in which I find myself – it also gives hope of future.legitimate challenge to legal but dubious (on a number levels) decisions…



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