Britain has decided! Apparently. We have voted to leave the EU. The politicians have all declared this to be the will of the people, so now we just get on with it, right? Anything else would be undemocratic…
Unfortunately, this statement does not bear true in the present situation, as there are a lot of people who disagree with the outcome. This much is evident, from the vote itself, in which 48% of voters declared they wanted to Remain, and the appearance of protests, in the form of petitions, campaigns and a number of street protests. Protests which are, according to some, ‘undemocratic’, flying in the face of a democratic decision to leave, decided by referendum.
Many of those who disagree with the result speak of the lies told during the campaign, the complex nature of the question and the raft of misplaced reasons provided by those in favour of leaving. These arguments may have value or not. But leaving these factors aside, is protesting about the result ‘undemocratic’? This is a heavily repeated question on social media and an interesting one.
There are several important ingredients for a healthy democracy. Voting, for instance, is pretty integral to the process. But so is protest. Indeed, crackdowns of peaceful protest movements by governments in regimes viewed as ‘oppressive’ often bring strong words from leaders of the Western world about democracy. So the right to protest is actually part of democracy. A democratic act and a right enshrined in law. Viewed from this perspective, protest is highly democratic.
But what if protest is against a democratic vote, such as the EU referendum? Does that make it undemocratic? At all? Clearly there are conflicting ideas at work here, as there often are when it comes to protest.
By its very nature, protest is often focused on laws and practices. For instance, people may protest about a new or established act of parliament and the effect it has on the lives of people in society. These laws are arrived at democratically, carried out by elected members of parliament. If we start to suggest that any protest against decisions taken by members of parliament, is undemocratic we begin to erode protest in a way that impacts on democracy itself.
Without the freedom to protest, an important check on democracy is removed or limited. So by undermining protest, even if we disagree with its aims, we are helping to undermine democracy, increasing the likelihood of poor legislation. It is vital that we allow protest to play its part during the coming months and years. The vote was not a final decision. By that, I don’t suggest that it should be ignored. Far from it. We have to look into the reasons and the detail and the possibilities. But neither should the opinions of those who disagree with the result or the effect it may have on the country or their lives. If we all believe in democracy, surely we accept that we have to strive to make everyone’s voice heard in the debate? Including those who ‘lost’.
Peaceful protest, can never be undemocratic. It is a key ingredient in the democratic process. Suggesting it is undemocratic is probably misguided.