Having spent some time reading Vince Cable's theme for the LibDem conference - yes, it is conference season yet again - it brings to mind how we exercise democracy inBritain. The LibDem theme is, of course, to abandon Brexit forthwith and rekindle our membership of the EU as if nothing had happened to bring the Brexit phenomena about in the first place. Now everyone is entitled to their views and they are equally free to express them (though that is not strictly correct when you consider a range of politically correct subjects that are a legal taboo to talk openly about) but where does democratic right extend to when, in this example, there is an open rebellion against a legally mandated choice to pursue Brexit ? In days past, such a rebellion might have been seen as treason and the perpetrators would have ended up in The Tower of London. That's a bit Draconian by today's standards but how far do we accept that freedom of speech is within the realms of public interest. Now that's another thorny debate as the notion of freedom of speech should, in a true democracy, be inviolate and as extensive as it needs to be. But let's face it. We don't actually live in a true democracy, we live in a controlled democracy that espouses those areas of free speech that can be uttered upon and those that can't. As per my bracketed comment above, there are now extensive restrictions on publicly airing views on race, gender, sexuality and umpteen other so called politically correct themes that are deemed not to be in the public interest. Some would argue that these topics may even be official government policy. But their very existence and the expression of vociferous indignation when anyone raises these topics is a sign that we do not enjoy full democratic rights.
So, back to the LibDems and their reversal policy on Brexit. As a partial democracy, how far should we go along with political dissent ? That's a bit like asking 'how long is a piece of string ?' but there surely has to be some limitation, some parameters that contain the public platform opportunity for such declarations ? This is not to say that the LibDems should be gagged, far from it, but we are talking of a constitutional matter, legally sanctioned by parliament, promoted by a previous government and voted on freely by the entire electorate. In any legislative process there are going to be those who end up on the wrong side of the outcome and we might describe this as the outcome of majority democracy - for we have little else by which to manage our affairs either at home or abroad. But should we let the LibDems campaign on public platforms to reverse that outcome ? Politicians generally are permitted a broader remit to expound their views and we may think this is no bad thing as it let's us understand what they're about more clearly (though clarity of understanding on what most politicians declare is a rare thing). The question is, how far should they be allowed to argue their point when the majority position of the electorate is being compromised and divisions within our national negotiating position exacerbated ? I don't have an answer to that but I am made uneasy by the continuing preparedness of minority stakeholders to try and sabotage the Brexit process without any deference to the legality of that process. We are, indeed, in uncharted waters here, but made more troublesome by wave-makers.
I have previously urged the government to put more grit into their stance on Brexit and I still hold that view, but the more dissent that is aired the weaker our negotiating position with the EU becomes. Dissent and rebellion by its very nature is a debilitating dynamic that dilutes our efforts to get the exit arrangements we need. If this were to result in a wishy-washy deal with extended 'membership' of the EU then the dissenters will have won and democracy of any sort will have failed. Remainers should have their views heard but when this starts to damage the very purpose and outcome of a majority voted for arrangement then we are putting our democracy very much on the line. Democracy will mean nothing if 'back-doors' to circumventing it are without locks.