Sir Winston Churchill once famously stated that “Democracy is the worst system devised by the wit of man… except for all the rest.” Churchill was stating a basic fact: democracy is, inarguably, the single greatest system of governance yet to be practised. It is not a simple concept, and has, in its vibrant history, held many forms. It is also unquestionably imperfect. Yet it is the bedrock of Western understanding of individual liberty, and, if for this reason alone, it should be treated as sacred.
The word “democracy” comes from the Greek word “demokratia”, which is derived from the individual Greek words “demos” (people), and “Kratos” (rule). Athens, in Ancient Greece, was the birthplace of democracy, and it was revolutionary for its time. In fact, it was so revolutionary, that after Athens fell to the Macedonian invasion towards the end of the fourth century BC, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that the concept of citizen-participatory government re-emerged. Renaissance intellectuals, of course, idolised the classical tradition and aimed to “rediscover” the Greco-Roman thought in order to find alternatives to the rule of religion.
From the Renaissance, the concept of “democracy” and its emphasis on political participation became split and was taken down two different paths. One strand of thought regarding democracy focused on its ability to ensure that no one citizen held dominion over another, and put greater emphasis on the citizenry. The other regarded democracy as vital because it offered a high degree of importance to the individual and their rights. The former would be developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and later Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, into communism and socialism; the latter would go on to become the basis for Western liberalism and democratic thought.
Perhaps the best understanding of the latter strand of democratic thought, and the intrinsic link it holds between liberty and democracy can be found in the work of John Stuart Mill. One of the fathers of liberalism, Mill was an early advocate of many ideas that are now considered social liberal norms: the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and a free press. Mill was, of course, one of the ideological founders of the ethical theory of utilitarianism – the basic premise of which may be summarised as: “that which is good is that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” Utilitarianism is, therefore, prima facie concerned with individuals and their interests being satisfied; and it is for this reason that governments must be accountable to the people and their interests.
Mill realised that democracy was the antithesis of bureaucracy and totalitarianism, and the only form of government that respected individual liberty. Mill’s own personal recommendation of the best form of democracy, representative democracy, is now adopted in virtually every Western state.
Now, does representative democracy, with its first-past-the-post voting and the climate of media political economy, have its flaws? Absolutely. But efforts to erode democracy at its most fundamental level, by challenging democratic outcomes for no reason other than the outcome itself, must be repelled at all costs, or the foundations of the most successful system of governance ever tested risk being burned down.
And once it becomes palatable to question the outcome of a democratic vote, it becomes possible to question the very foundation of democracy itself: individual liberty.
I voted Remain on 23 June 2016. I lost, but democracy – and Leave – won. Sure, it was a national referendum, not comparable with parliamentary elections; but if you want to go down this route, an estimation by the House of Commons library suggests that, if the votes had been cast on a constituency level, Leave would have won by a landslide.
The basic democratic principles underpinning this vote are the same as every single other vote that has been held in the UK, from general elections to other national referenda. Never before, to my knowledge, has the outcome of a vote been questioned in the UK; not on grounds of fraudulence or foul play, but simply on the virtue of the result itself.
Freedom and democracy are fundamentally intertwined, and neither can survive in the absence of the other. Therefore, if the people advocating a second referendum get their way, and they are by no means without substantial social backing, advocates of freedom should be gravely concerned, as one of freedom’s most sacrosanct institutions is under threat.
I am still, at heart, a Remainer. But more than that, I am a lover and advocate of freedom, whether it’s political, economic or social. So, the outcome of the referendum must be respected, and one can only hope that the nation’s efforts will eventually be focused on getting the best terms of departure possible, rather than sabotaging the deal altogether.