The editors of the Daily Telegraph ended the year with a commentary about Brexit – no surprise there. The UK’s vote to leave the EU was the big story for Britain in 2016. While it’s also no surprise that the Telegraph editors believe that this is a good thing, they did manage to surprise and irritate me with their closing remarks: “In 2016, we saw British democracy functioning at its best. It must be protected for future generations to enjoy.”
Really? Was that democracy at its best? In 2016, the British people saw what a mess democracy can be. Many asked, ‘If we have democratically-elected members of parliament, why do we have to have a referendum in the first place?’ The answer to this for many has been simply ‘democracy.’ Others of us with a working memory will point out how the referendum decision came about when PM David Cameron was trying to appease the hard right of his party and not lose votes to UKIP – in other words, it was a politically-motivated abuse of democracy.
Putting that aside, let’s treat the referendum vote as an exercise in democracy. This exercise didn’t show ‘democracy functioning’ as much as it showed a dysfunctional democracy. Part of this dysfunction could be seen in the belief in lies and misinformation that democracy does not protect us from. Nor does democracy guarantee that people won’t vote from positions of racism or xenophobia. The referendum campaigns exploited this, along with the freedom of speech that democracy supports. Filling the air with vitriol, this exercise in democracy brought out the worst in many people, leaving families and whole communities divided. It also led to the murder of MP Jo Cox, an act that has come to epitomise the extreme views of the hate-fuelled debates.
I don’t understand how any thinking person, whether they voted to leave or remain in the EU, could possibly claim that this was democracy at its best.
Equally irksome is the Telegraph comment about democracy needing to be ‘protected.’ I think we all know that this is a reference to those who want to overturn Brexit or have a soft Brexit. These people have been accused of being ‘undemocratic’ by some of our politicians and by many in the gutter press. Wanting to correct the error that is Brexit, or wanting to have a partial departure from the EU is hardly undemocratic. On this latter point, given the simplistic in/out nature of the referendum, where issues such as EEA membership or soft Brexits were never an option, continuing the debate is a necessity.
For those of you who regularly follow my blog or my Twitter account, you’re probably wondering why someone who retweets from The New European, The Guardian and The New Yorker would even bother with a right-winged paper like The Daily Telegraph. Two reasons: one, their Saturday paper has an excellent puzzle section – two codewords, three crosswords and various number puzzles for my better half; reason two, I think it’s healthy to consider the views of others that are different from my own, especially if the writing is intelligent. Needless to say, the Telegraph editors have failed this time to demonstrate that intelligence. Instead, they have chosen to appeal to the same emotive fervour which replaced reason during the referendum campaign. So, my closing remarks come from the US journalist Bill Moyers, who once said, ‘The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply twined.’