Direct democracy isn’t more valid than representative democracy.
Critics of Boris Johnson’s decision to “prorogue” Parliament by sending its members home for several weeks say it is undemocratic: the Prime Minister is making it much harder for Parliament to influence Brexit, and thus making it more likely that the UK will leave the EU without a deal. Johnson’s supporters, however, maintain that there is nothing undemocratic about it, since it helps execute the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum.
Who’s right? Is the democratic will of the British people to be found in their Parliament, one of the oldest continuously operating institutions of representative democracy? Or is it to be found in the referendum’s Leave vote?
Before trying to answer this question, let’s note that it’s a different question from whether proroguing Parliament at this particular moment violates the British constitution. Constitutional norms aren’t always democratic, even in democracies. (The U.S. Senate and Supreme Court come to mind.) Something can be both undemocratic and constitutional, depending on the details. The question about democracy, in contrast, doesn’t require as deep an inquiry (or as British English would have it, enquiry) into specifics.
The answer to whether proroguing Parliament right now is an undemocratic act depends on whether popular democracy (the kind expressed in the Brexit referendum) trumps representative democracy (the kind exercised by elected members of Parliament).
Some theorists of democracy think that the people’s unmediated decision — e.g., the referendum vote — is closer to the will of the people. That was the rationale of the American reformers who instituted referenda in the U.S. during the Progressive era. In their thinking, the people’s elected representatives sometimes get in the way of the people’s will. 1 The Johnson camp is drawing on these traditions when it maintains that proroguing Parliament will give power back to the public.
But this view gets the nature of democracy wrong. In a system that features both referenda and representative institutions like Parliament, the people’s will is expressed equally in an up-down popular vote and in the actions of the representative body. Neither takes priority. And both reflect the fundamental democratic idea that the will of the people should control government action.
The proof that a referendum is not superior to a legislative act lies in the reality that each communicates something very different from the other, while neither can accomplish what the other can.
Unlike the parliamentary act, a referendum can express a snapshot of what the engaged public is thinking about an important question in a given moment. No matter what Parliament might have said about Brexit, only a referendum could capture public opinion in real time. (So do polls, sort of, but a referendum vote asks people to actually make a decision with a real-world impact. This is why democratic systems rely on votes instead surveys.)
A referendum, however, cannot generate a concrete policy plan. Typically, a referendum asks a yes-or-no question. Even if it is a yes-or-no question about the adoption of a specific policy plan, a referendum question cannot adapt or negotiate, and can’t evolve according to changing circumstances.
As a matter of democracy, it does not matter that the Brexit referendum did not include plan details. That would not have been appropriate for a referendum. Plan details belong to legislation, and of course the Brexit referendum required legislative action to implement it. That is, the democratic act of voting “Leave” inherently entailed a further democratic act from Parliament. Neither the referendum nor the detailed planning was more innately democratic. Both were part of the democratic process.
It also doesn’t matter that public opinion on Brexit may have shifted since the vote, that referenda in the U.K. are relatively rare, that referenda on issues of international relations are even rarer, or that Parliament has so far failed to work out the details of Brexit. The democratic system makes provision for all of this — as well as for general elections and follow-up referenda, if either of those become politically feasible — and all are equally democratic.
That is why making it harder for Parliament to take further action on a Brexit plan does in fact curtail democracy. At this stage, Parliament is the democratic institution that is charged with giving meaning to the referendum vote.
Proroguing Parliament may or may not be unconstitutional. But it is certainly undemocratic, since it interferes with the specific democratic institution that has the job of designing and carrying out a plan. That’s unfortunate — and it will have consequences for British democracy in the long term.
- In fact, many of the American framers in the 18th century also understood representative democracy as a check on the popular will. The difference between them and the Progressives was that they thought this was a good thing, since the public can be fickle.