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Brexit or not, how much democracy is too much?

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The revived fortunes of the second referendum will spur debate on where we should limit democratic input.

Labour’s surprise backing of a referendum on Theresa May’s deal, should it get through Parliament in the coming weeks, was on one level a mere twist in the convoluted Brexit saga.

Yet it is also a further sign that direct democracy – voters being directly balloted on policy questions – is becoming normalised within British politics.

Britain has a longer relationship with referendums than is commonly supposed. As far back as 1935, the UK Parliament received a request for secession based on a referendum. Western Australia had voted two years prior to separate from the rest of Australia by a two-thirds majority. Parliament ignored the result.

Parliament’s own website counts 11 referendums in the UK since 1973, though this list only includes those across the whole UK or one of its four constituent countries. Historic referendums on local issues are far more numerous, touching on alcohol prohibition, local mayors and setting up the proposed north-east assembly.

Even so, the rancour about Brexit provided an ideal backdrop for a debate on democracy hosted by Freer, a new think tank set up under the Institute of Economic Affairs, itself a think tank promoting free markets.

Tessa Mayes, a journalist and filmmaker who would extend direct democracy even to how the Bank of England sets its own interest rate, framed the debate as one of where power ultimately lies.

“Those that are worried about letting the people in more are actually attacking direct democracy,” she said. “If you don’t believe people are the ultimate source of democratic power I don’t think you’re a democrat.”

Arrayed most starkly against her was Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP and current columnist with The Times and The Spectator, where he has openly argued for Westminster politicians to overturn the referendum result, implementation of which he believes would be damaging.

“We have been able for about 3,000 years to avoid the question of how much democracy we want, because there were serious practical limitations,” he said. Social media and the internet had changed that, he added, and now we must ask how much democracy we want.

Debates about the extent of democracy always reference Edmund Burke, an 18th century MP often regarded as the founder of conservatism. In 1774 he told Bristolian voters: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Critics of democracy usually claim that too much of it, or its wrongful application, leads to bad decisions. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, made such an argument in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Similarly, Sam Bowman, former executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, another free market think tank, said: “We don’t have referendums on what [central bank] interest rates would be, the reason being that we’re worried people are going to get it wrong.”

For some, Britain’s membership of the EU was one such “complex policy question” that voters were unsuited to answer. More broadly, Mr Bowman is a fan of more market-based solutions, which he thinks allow individuals to make more personalised choices, opposing that with the binary results that voting can produce.

“We need less democracy,” he said.

But not all decisions can be personalised in Mr Bowman’s preferred style. And in democracy’s defence, Simon Kaye, research director at the Project for Modern Democracy, noted that it can bring on board people who disagree with the decisions being made. “Democracy is for the disagreers,” he said.

Even those who disagree with Brexit agree that a new political settlement is needed – or at least is inevitable at this point. Many in local government, perhaps most notably the clutch of metro mayors, have called for more devolution in Brexit’s wake.

There is a sense to bringing decision making closer to where it will be implemented, accounting for local conditions and preferences more effectively than Whitehall ever could. But in adding further layers of democracy, local politicians must be sure to bring people with them, gaining their consent and ensuring there is no sense of politics being done to them, rather than with them.

As for the question of whether democracy should be representative or direct, Lee Rowley MP (Con), said it was “absolutely a balance”, with decisions taken on a “case-by-case” basis. Given turnout at many existing elections, I expect most citizens would agree. The debate on where the balance lies is likely to last even longer than Brexit.

Jimmy Nicholls, features editor

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