The true defenders of democracy are those who don’t give up the fight

PUBLISHED: 16:43 24 February 2017 | UPDATED: 17:01 24 February 2017

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British democracy has been an inspiration round the globe. Now it is time to defend it.

One of the toughest charges to answer for those of us who voted against triggering Article 50 is that of being anti-democratic.

If we respected democracy, so the argument runs, we would just shut up and enact the will of the 51.9%, without question or constraint. It’s the argument that many Labour colleagues have made to me when explaining their decision to reluctantly trigger Brexit, and I fully respect their motives and the good faith in which they hold this view. But I respectfully disagree, because in this democrat’s opinion it is our democracy itself, our British, liberal democracy, that is as much at risk under Brexit as is the economic security of our country.

It’s now twenty years since the American journalist, Fareed Zakaria, first coined the term “illiberal democracy”. He used it to describe the rise of states from across the globe where democracy, free elections and majority rule, were taking hold, but without the counter-weights of the rule of law – the separation of powers, the freedom of speech and the press – that are necessary to protect the rights of individuals and minorities from the tyranny of the majority faction. The need for those checks and balances in any democracy has been understood for several centuries, a shared understanding across the Atlantic, from Madison to Rousseau.

They are what make us liberal or constitutional democracies, in which the right of the dissenting minority, whether it’s 4.8% or 48%, to representation and free expression is not just tolerated but celebrated, as the very hallmark of our democratic freedom.

Zakaria’s observation that many emerging states were democratising without these essential checks and balances was accompanied by a warning that governments in our older, liberal democracies might soon tire themselves of the hard work of forging consensus from division and succumb, instead, to the easy charms of populist policies, “in the name of the people”, but not necessarily in their interest.

Of course, it would be Trumpian hyperbole to suggest that Brexit Britain has become an “illiberal democracy” overnight. But when our Government accuses the independent judiciary of “unacceptably frustrating the will of the people”, or threatens to abolish the reforming chamber if they propose any reforms, then our liberal democracy is certainly under challenge. And true democrats have to rally to its aid.

Just as we must rally to respect the rights of the 16 million who voted to remain. A minority, yes, but only just. And with an unarguable, inalienable, right to speak in the debate and to expect consideration from their government. Their voices must be heard and their concerns respected, not shouted down with threat and bombast. The principle of majority rule does not by itself constitute democracy and a pure, populist majoritarianism cannot simply overrule the protections built over generations in our parliamentary democracy. Parliament can be informed and advised by the direct, democratic expression of a referendum, but we cannot be absolved of one of our duties to act in the national interest, or to give voice to the minority.

In practice that means that throughout the passage of the Brexit Bill, in the Lords this week and back at the Commons for March 13, we must continue to ask questions of the Government: about the impact on trade and free movement and free speech. But our task will not be finished when the Bill is passed. Though its grudging two paragraphs, dragged through the courts, were a perfect example of our Government flirting with illiberal democracy, the Great Repeal Bill that will follow them should, by contrast, be a paragon of patriotic and democratic challenge, as the 80,000 pages of EU legislation, on everything from workers’ rights to environmental standards, are considered for adoption in our own statutes.

The Government says, of course, that they will all be adopted, lock, stock and barrel, and be ready for when we leave. But they also say we’ll have a trade deal after Brexit with the “exact same benefits” as we have as part of the single market, and not even David Davis can surely believe that fantasy might come true.

So our task will be to check every jot and comma, to fight for every right and to call out every loss. We must challenge every dodgy promise and point to every benefit we’re missing out on as Europe reforms and advances. Whether it’s the cheaper and more secure energy that will emerge from a single market for its supply, or the EU clamp down on tax havens that the British people will be “protected from” by Brexit, our job will be to point to what we could have won, and what we still might lose.

In doing so, we should stand tall, not as deniers of democracy, but in its defence. Defenders of the liberal, British democracy that has been an inspiration to so many societies across the world, and which we must now safeguard for our own.

Owen Smith is the Labour MP for Pontypridd and one of 52 of his party’s MPs to vote against the Brexit bill

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