by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies

28th March 2019

In setting forth procedures for deciding its preference among the multiple Brexit options, Parliament has shown wisdom on one point, unwisdom on another. It is wise in allowing five calendar days for its members to converse and caucus among one another to refine their views and choices in-between the first and second day of voting. It was unwise in its method of voting on the first day, each option voted upon as if to vote it up or down rather than an order of preference indicated.

1. Unwise voting procedure on the first day

The unwisdom is the simpler part. The purpose was to establish an order of preference. Yet method of voting on the first day gave a strong incentive for strategic voting, such as voting down a proposition that one would accept but was not one’s first choice, which distorts the outcome to the negative side on all the propositions. At the same time, the method — a count of pros and cons on each motion — gave an impression that the Parliament was making a decision for or against that motion, contradicting the actuality that they were trying to rank the several motions in an order of preference.

It was a contradiction upon which the Government opponents of Parliamentary authority were quick to seize; it served them for their sloganeering purpose of saying the Parliament had ruled out all options and proved incapable of resolving anything or of saying what it wants. The Government had already been criticized for the demagogic character of its attacks on Parliament, speaking in a language of pitting the good People against the bad Parliament; this had plainly given encouragement to the threats of violence against MPs, and it truly undermined the trust in British democracy that the Government professed to be concerned for. The method of voting on the first day gave the Government an opportunity to compound the damage, and in fact it immediately undertook to do so. Fortunately the damage was probably limited this time, given the immediate response of other MPs recalling the actual order of business, which was to take initial straw votes on the first day and to undertake to resolve the matter on a subsequent day of votes.

2. Wise provision of interim space for caucusing and deliberation

The wisdom lies in a more profound fact: the fact that Parliament did not treat the initial voting exercise as decisive. Rather, it recognized the necessity of a further stage of discussions and deliberations outside of the voting process, in order to render a subsequent voting process itself adequate.

In allowing for parliamentarians’ informal deliberations in-between separate voting dates, it encapsulated the fact that Parliament should have been deliberating on these options for an entire two years. It should have been using all its normal methods of deliberation: committees, informal personal discussions, inquiries, debates, aggregation of views into groupings, refinement of options into forms fit for being put to a vote and properly testing the main line of division among groupings. This process would have come to a head long ago in a vote or votes on options that would have been reformulated substantially through this process.

This process is now being necessarily compressed into a few days, surrounded by hurried votes. The initial set of straw votes in its first stage was a kind of substitute for the lost months of preliminary deliberation, in order to determine a set of primary options and preferences. It is a necessarily imperfect substitute; that is the cost of the delay.

The Government’s refusal to provide for proper Parliamentary deliberation in the course of two years, coupled with Parliament’s failure for most of that time to stand up for itself and Mr Corbyn’s refusal to provide leadership to that end as leader of the Opposition, left Parliament with only a couple weeks to do its job when it at long last stood up, given the onrush of deadlines in the real world. Yet even in these conditions, Parliament had an instinctive wisdom to seek to maximize its space deliberation, not merely assert itself with voting. It was a wisdom derived from its very essence as a representative body, building on centuries of experience of the need for its methods as a corrective to the more flawed directly democratic bodies of the ancient world.

The delusion of direct democracy and referendum democracy is that it treats voting as the whole thing. The reality of functioning democracy is the opposite. The crux of democracy lies in the complex processes of deliberation, formal and informal, individual and group; the often intimate processes of aggregation of views; the procedures and application of intellect to formulating options. The voting is only the icing on this cake: a necessary icing, the measure to which the other processes adapt themselves, but quite inadequate without those other processes.

The importance of these other processes is the reason why Parliament exists in the first place. It is why representative democracy has been found to work, overturning the long-settled view that had been that democracy — meaning direct democracy — had failed.

Classical democracy had not in reality been a total failure, despite the bad reputation it gave democracy for the next two thousand years. Its partial successes were in many respects impressive, compared to traditional authoritarian regimes. They were possible thanks to the fact that, even in the direct city-state democracies of the ancient world, the decisions were made not by a pure democratic poll or referendum, but by an assembly of the people. This was the beating heart of classical democracy: the gathering of such people as could be gathered, so as to allow for their on-the-spot deliberation, through debating, refinement of thinking, creativity, reformulations, factional aggregation and reaggregation, and finally voting.

The size limitations of this method were nonetheless troubling; the several Greek city-states had vital common defense needs that they could not meet effectively unless together, but there was no way to gather their citizens jointly. No less troubling were the limitations on the amount of collective deliberation and wisdom they could achieve in the space of a mass meeting; it was better than a simple referendum but not good enough. Representative democracy was developed in modern times because it resolved much better both problems: how to get the entire body of a large people represented, and how to provide them the time and space for adequate deliberation.

Britain’s tragedy has lain in the regression on three occasions under the Cameron Government, out of what seemed at the time like political expediency, to the most inferior method of all, referendum. It was not only done three times, but on three existential issues of the body politic: the continuation or sundering of the Union with Scotland, the continuation of the first past the post system of voting or its replacement by a proportional system, and the continuation or sundering of the Union with Europe.

Continuity won out in the first two of the three referenda. In each case, Britain escaped a bullet: had continuity lost in either case, it would have created an immediate need for a further, deep, and open deliberative process on the subject at hand, but the politicians would have been reluctant to allow space for that, since they had carelessly promised to simply abide by the results. They would need to eat their words and admit to an insincerity, in order to fulfill their true responsibilities. Rare is the statesman who is willing to do that. Ordinary politicians find it easier to compound an insincerity than to admit it.

Then came the third referendum. This time continuity did lose.

This left a glaring need for the most profound use of the methods of national dialogue and Parliamentary deliberation. But it also left the dominant politicians in both major parties unwilling to admit the flawed nature of their promise to obey the result. Instead they competed to compound the insincerity, insisting that they would fulfill their false promise.

This was the source of Mrs May’s exclusion of the national deliberative processes. It was the source of her attitude of laying down red lines instead. Treatment of the referendum as a sacred artefact entailed giving its interpretation a status comparable to theological deductions from a God-given text. She treated her deductions from the referendum as outclassing and overriding Parliamentary deliberations, and threatened Parliament with chaos and blood in the streets if it defied her interpretation. By sacralizing one vote, a thin and highly questionable one at that, turning it both into an unalterable scripture and a controlling behavioral script, she undermined the authority of all the other, iterative, changeable, adaptive deliberation and voting that is the traditional process of British Parliamentary democracy. Her logic and conduct in this matter bears a disheartening parallelism to that of Islamists, who say the laws and the authority of government should come from God through the sacred text of the Koran, not from independent human deliberation and changeable vote counts.

3. Getting to a wise voting procedure on the second voting day, and wise follow-up procedures.

There is no dearth of better methods for deciding a collective ranking of preferences. The transferable vote is the most respected of them. It too is not perfect; indeed, Kenneth Arrow proved that there is no voting technique which is perfect. This inadequacy of mere voting is the theoretical reason why representative deliberative democracy is truly the least bad method, using the subtleties of human discussion and the intricacies of interpersonal intercourse so as to resolve the numerous multiple options that exist on all issues into a viably limited range of options fit for a vote. Referendum in particular is an unwise procedure; this is something I have had occasion to observe elsewhere, in the course of the progress of this tragic travesty of British democracy. But a referendum has taken place, two years have been lost kowtowing to it, and time is too short to give a full run to the methods of representative deliberation. In these conditions, a transferable vote among options is probably the best method for the second day of Parliamentary indicative voting, and it should be adequate for that day.

There will probably be a need for a third day beyond that. Parliament should take care to provide for it.

There will probably be a need to ask the EU for a further extension of time, both for completing the Parliamentary decision process soberly among the options, and for a confirmatory referendum. The EU will probably agree to the extension, if Parliament gathers the will to see to its being asked in good time.

The EU could, to be sure, set further conditions, such as establishing a Government that can be counted on to implement the will of Parliament and provide the EU for the first time in two years with a serious negotiating partner. Dissolution of Parliament and national elections would not solve that problem; it would probably only deepen the chaos, no matter which party came out on top, given the inadequate leadership at present at the head of both major parties. What is needed to solve the negotiating problem is rather a Government formed by different method, a National Government based on the sober majority of Parliament.

The majority of backbenchers in both major parties are sober; it is the leadership and an extremist backbench minority faction in each that is not. A Government based on the sober backbench majorities would have the additional merit of paving the way for a restoration of sober leadership in the major parties. This is possibly Britain’s only hope of finding a way out of the deep crisis into which its two dominant parties have fallen, a crisis of the political culture that is no less dangerous than the constitutional crisis that has been building by the Government’s repeated contempt of Parliament.

There will also be a need to provide for combining mutually compatible options. The confirmatory referendum option is clearly intended to be combined with whichever one of the other options comes out best; and it is in fact one of the two at the top of the list in terms of how it fared in the first day of voting. It is necessary for legitimizing whatever is decided upon; it would presumably present the choice of either the deal-outline proposed by Parliament, or else remaining in the EU. It would be a travesty of the intention of Parliament, if the voting procedure on the second voting day were to end up pitting this option irreconcilably against the other topmost option on the list.

4. A second referendum for restoring British Trust in British Democracy

The confirmatory referendum is needed for another, equally compelling reason: for restoring Britain’s trust in its own democracy.

A second referendum has been irrationally depicted by Mrs May as threat, dangerously divisive, an act of disrespect to the people. The reality is the opposite.

I get an impression that Mrs May has undertaken to persuade herself with whatever language she can come up with about the danger of a new referendum. Perhaps she fears that such referendum would overturn her own mandate. In making her argument, she has made herself the mouthpiece and amplifier of the very undermining of British democracy of which she warns.

A second referendum would be an act of respect to the British people. It is the only way to overcome the attacks on the legitimacy of the traditional British parliamentary democracy. And it is the only way to overcome the sacralization of the first referendum, which lies at the root of the undermining of traditional legitimacy.

The first referendum really was divisive. A second one is the only way to soften its divisiveness.

Votes and campaigns may seem divisive when they are going on, but this is an optical illusion. The alternatives to voting are even more divisive. It is not voting but political decision-making that is divisive per se.

The virtue of democracy is that it votes repeatedly. This way, no single vote is given a fixed metaphysical status. Regular voting serves to soften the inevitable divisiveness of politics.

It is a virtue that Mrs May has undermined.

The few countries that do referenda on a professional basis, such as Switzerland, in fact do repeat and revise referenda; they make sure to avoid sacralizing any single referendum. This is not necessarily enough to make referendum the best way of running Switzerland; but it does avoid it’s becoming disastrous.

It is a pagan behavior that turns a profane secular event into an idol. The May Government, together with the extreme Brexit faction, can fairly be said to have formed a pagan cult around the initial referendum. It now invokes that cult to oppose a second referendum. From the standpoint of its idolatry, it is perhaps right to fear a second referendum: its outcome could set up a second authority coequal with its idol, depriving it of its uniquely sacred standing.

The second referendum would be a way of once again desacralizing politics. Desacralization was the great achievement of the transition in early modern times to the secular state. It would be madness to abandon it now to a new idolatry.

In normal secular terms, a second referendum would return the initial referendum to its normal status as one event among many, no longer a unique source of authority, no longer a threat to the authority of the British Parliament or to the legitimacy of Britain’s normal methods of government.

The threats Mrs May makes regarding a second referendum show that Britain is in fact suffering the political equivalent of a hysteria, one based on a singularity of a referendum that its traditional system cannot digest. Fortunately the cure for a singularity is simple: to hold a second event, one that returns the singularity to the status of a normal event. This means that a second referendum, far from heightening the hysteria into violence as Mrs May threatens, will dissolve the hysteria.

It was a misfortunate to have made the mistake of putting matters in a highly unprofessional way to a referendum; and doubly, for this to have led to a Government that based its authority on turning that referendum into a sacred cow. But the problem is fundamentally a simple one, and its nature indicates clearly, one might even say scientifically, the cure: to hold the second referendum.