How did we all become so terrified of democracy, anyway?

Brexit is, after all, but one in a whole string of popular votes, taken in various European Union member states over the years, whose results have similarly been cavalierly ignored

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? That, I believe, was the question Johnny Rotten chose to end the Sex Pistols’ infamous 1978 US tour with (interestingly enough, shortly after performing ‘Anarchy In The UK’.)

It’s a question that pops to my mind every so often, too; especially when reading about the truly remarkable things happening in Rotten’s United Kingdom today (where there now really is a much greater threat of anarchy than even back in the late 1970s).

Are we being cheated, when we are invited to express our supposedly ‘sovereign’ wish in what is meant to be a democratic, fully above-board national referendum… only to afterwards be told, ‘F*ck you, we won’t do what you tell us’ by your own government, to the tune of Rage Against the Machine?

Sadly, that’s what it’s beginning to look like. For let’s face it: it’s not as though the UK’s flat refusal to deliver on a clear referendum mandate – for three whole years – is the only indication that direct democracy is dying, in Britain as everywhere else in Europe.

Brexit is, after all, but one in a whole string of popular votes, taken in various European Union member states over the years, whose results have similarly been cavalierly ignored.

In 2001, for instance, Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty in a referendum (or, to be more accurate, rejected proposed amendments to the Irish Constitution, that would have made ratification of the Nice Treaty possible). This is how it was reported in Euractiv a week later (note: I single out Euractiv because its editorial line was emblematic of how most overtly po-EU media reacted at the time):

“Ireland’s rejection of the Treaty will inevitably be seen as placing a worrying question mark over the pace and scale of the promised enlargement of the European Union. […] However, The European Policy Centre believes there must be no slowing of the accession negotiations. These should be pursued with the greatest vigour…”

Got that, folks? To Hell with Ireland’s blunt ‘No’ in an exercise in direct democracy… the response was to doggedly ‘pursue’ the same rejected reforms anyway, with even greater determination than before.

So much so, that just a year later, the Irish were presented with a second national referendum… to approve a second raft of changes to Ireland’s Constitution, so as to once again permit the ratification of pretty much the same old Nice Treaty they had earlier rejected.

But rather than amend the Nice Treaty to meet the demands of Ireland’s naysayers… they did the opposite, by chopping and changing their own Constitution, to ensure that it no longer conflicted with Europe’s well-laid enlargement plans.

At all points in the entire equation, the only visible concern was to make damn sure that the European project forged ahead, regardless of any democratic ‘obstacles’. For that is what the entire concept of democracy had been reduced to in the process: a minor hurdle, to be overcome at all costs.

Meanwhile, just to rub in it a little more, Euractiv even went on to say: “What happened in Ireland last week could well have happened in other EU countries had the process of ratification required other popular referendums. Recent opinion polls reveal that there is significant, although completely unfounded, fear in many EU Member States about enlargement as well as reservations about a further deepening of political union…”

No prizes for reading between the lines there: Ireland’s ‘mistake’ was to turn to its own people and ask for their approval… instead of doing what most other EU member states did at the time, and ratify the Nice Treaty by a simple parliamentary majority, behind the electorate’s back.

It is a small step from there to conclude that holding a ‘popular referendum’ would be a ‘mistake’ in all other circumstances, too. And, oh my, what a coincidence: that is precisely the pattern that has unfolded across the EU ever since.

Ten years later, it fell to France, the Netherlands and (again) Ireland to reject another seminal European agreement: this time, the Lisbon Treaty… which unlike its predecessor, represented a substantially different treaty from the one enlargement countries like Malta actually signed when we joined the EU in 2004.

France’s experience is of particular relevance, as it seems to mirror Ireland’s in all but one, crucial respect.

As in Ireland, a referendum was held; and the French ‘No’ campaign argued that the Lisbon Treaty was ‘incompatible’ with France’s Constitution. Likewise, French voters rejected it by a clear, unequivocal majority (53%, on a voter turn-out of 69%). And just like Ireland, the French government responded by amending their own Constitution, and removing all the ‘incompatible’ stuff… leaving the Lisbon Treaty itself largely intact.

So far, so good. But that’s where the similarities end. France, it seems had learnt from Ireland’s ‘mistake’ in 2001 (though not enough to have decided against the first referendum to begin with); so it didn’t go back to the people a second time. Instead, Chirac negotiated an unlikely parliamentary alliance to achieve the majority he needed to change the Constitution without any input from the electorate… basically, everyone except the Communists… and, hey presto!

Lisbon Treaty duly ratified, just like the European Commission demanded… and just like the people of France emphatically didn’t want. As for France’s resounding ‘Non’ in that earlier referendum… well, I suppose you can work out the rest for yourselves. It was simply ignored, like the inconvenient obstacle it all along was.

Honestly, makes you wonder why governments even bother holding referendums at all, seeing as they have no intention whatsoever of abiding by the outcome. And besides: why stop at referendums? Why not conclude that general elections, too, are merely ‘obstacles’ that sometimes get in the way of Europe’s cunning stratagems… and just do away with them altogether?

Incredibly, this is what seems to be happening in the UK right now. Never mind that the people of Britain very clearly voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum – with or without any ‘deal’ (which, in any case, wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the question itself) – yet unaccountably, is still a member three years later.

After all, that is precisely the sort of total subversion of democracy we have come to expect, given our collective past experience in such matters over the past 20 years. No, the astonishing latest development (at the time of writing, anyhow) is that British PM Boris Johnson has now lost his majority in the House of Commons… yet when he tried to take the only democratic course left available to him under the circumstances, and call an early election…

… he was overruled by the same Parliament that had deprived him of his majority: not once, but twice.

To recap, then: Britain first turned to the electorate to decide on its future in the European Union by means of a nationwide referendum…and ignored the result. Then its Parliament made it technically impossible to actually deliver on that mandate, by reducing the present government to the status of a lame duck. And to cap it all, it has now even shut the door to an election: which is about the only thing left that can possibly resolve the entire Brexit impasse to begin with.

But at least, the Commons’ reluctance to hold an election can easily be explained in purely party-political terms. Clearly, the Remainers have understood that Boris Johnson would most likely enlarge his parliamentary majority in an election – hardly surprising, seeing as how the British press have also demonised, ridiculed and pooh-poohed Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, to the point of making him utterly unelectable – and, rather than bow to the people’s will on that score… Britain’s Parliament seems hellbent on preventing the British people from even expressing their will at all.

Personally, though, I was unaware that ‘elections’ were things which could be safely held only when a small minority within the country decides they will probably win. (Can you imagine if Malta’s Parliament decided the same way in 1998, for instance – when Alfred Sant called an early election after losing his parliamentary majority? Or in 2013? I don’t even want to think…) Still less did I ever imagine that elections could just as easily be simply suspended on a whim, too… this time, because the same minority suspects it might lose.

Where on earth is the ‘democracy’ in any of that, I wonder? Nowhere at all, as far as I can see. Britain has been cheated out of all of it, it seems… in fact, under the circumstances, I struggle to imagine how it now can even still be legitimately described as a ‘democratic country’ at all.

But hey! Let’s look on the bright side for a change. Once we’ve completely eradicated what little remains of the democratic process… well, there’ll be no further ‘obstacles’ to hinder Europe from pursuing its grand projects ‘with the greatest vigour’, now would there? And that is the only thing that has ever really mattered, in this entire unsightly, anarchic and undemocratic mess… isn’t it?