One person, one vote! The majority rules! That’s democracy! That’s all there is to it. Isn’t it? Anoraks like myself may insist that there is more to democracy than this. But ask a hundred people chosen at random from Scotland’s electorate what democracy is and those two things will feature most prominently in their responses. We each get one vote and when all the votes are counted the highest number wins. There might be the occasional mention of popular sovereignty. Maybe the odd reference to ultimate political authority or democratic legitimacy. But, for the most part, people will tend most commonly to reach for those to things as the essential attributes of democracy. One person, on vote! The majority rules! That’s democracy.
But it’s not always that simple. While it’s true that we each get one vote and in that sense we’re all equal, it is also true that some votes count for more than others. We are equal in strict numerical terms, but not equal in terms of the effect of the one vote that each of us has. The first past the post (FPTP) system is notorious for affording disproportionate influence to a relatively tiny number of ‘swing voters’. At every election, individuals and groups seek to enhance the relative value of their votes by means of diverse ‘tactical voting’ strategies. If you live in any part of the UK that isn’t England, it’s likely that your vote could be worthless. Arithmetic and the Union make it so.
Look at any political or electoral map of the UK and, unless you’re very seriously prejudiced, you’ll see that Scotland is different. The outcome of the 2016 EU referendum nicely illustrates the situation. Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted differently from England (with Wales). Scotland voted Remain. England voted leave. Scotland’s vote counted for nothing, Regardless of which way you voted, if you voted in Scotland (or Northern Ireland) your vote had no value. It had no effect.
Political science lecturer Sean Swan summed up the situation rather well. In an article for the London School of Economics back in March 2017 he observed,
Scotland’s position within the UK is intolerable. Under the British constitution, it is irrelevant that 57 of Scotland’s 59 MPs are opposed to Brexit; irrelevant that Scotland voted two to one against Brexit; and irrelevant that Brexit is opposed by the parliament and government of Scotland. Regardless of whether or not there is a majority in favour of outright independence, the status quo reduces democracy in Scotland to a mockery in which neither (Scottish) popular nor (Scottish) parliamentary sovereignty apply.A democratic outrage: Scotland’s constitutional position and Brexit
Brexit is one example of how the Union devalues democracy in those parts of the UK which are peripheral to England-as-Britain. It is by no means the only such example. The instances of Scotland’s votes being discounted are too numerous to relate. Those maps clearly indicate that Scotland is already separate from England-as-Britain in all sorts of ways. The needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s voters differ markedly from those of England-as-Britain. In Scotland, the way we vote reflects this difference. But the only time our votes count – the only time they have any apparent effect – is on those increasingly rare occasions when our preferences happen to coincide with the preferences of a majority of voters in England-as-Britain. Failing that, our votes don’t count. Whatever we vote for, what we get is what a different country votes for.
But supposing the EU vote was the only instance of Scotland’s vote being ignored, it would be enough. Only a single instance is necessary to demonstrate the fact that the Union is ant-democratic. A thing is anti-democratic if it so much as has the potential to deny a fundamental principle of democracy. If there is any democratic principle that the Union doesn’t at least have the potential to deny then I have been unable to discover it. If further proof of this were needed then we need only look to the way the Union asserts for the political elite of England-as-Britain legal authority to veto Scotland’s right of self-determination.
As tyrants know and totalitarian states demonstrate, control of certain aspects of the life of a nation is equivalent to control of all aspects of the nation’s life. Lip service may be paid to democracy by honouring the principle of one person, one vote even as genuine democracy is denied by the differential weighting of those individual votes.
Similarly, the idea of majority rule becomes less clear-cut when there is the capacity – or the potential – to alter the definition of a majority. If majority is a shifting concept then it is inevitably going to be shifted by those with the power to do so in order to favour those who have that power. All power ultimately serves itself. If there exists a power to influence what constitutes a majority then this influence will be used to enhance and entrench that power. It is in this way that established power comes to be established. Again, it needs only one example to prove the point. In 2014, a majority for No counted. In 2016, a majority for Remain didn’t.
Somebody is bound to point to the fact that sometimes the shifting concept of a majority works to Scotland’s benefit. Mention the ‘40% rule’ which denied us devolution in 1979 by redefining a majority as insufficient to rule and they will point out that this was rectified with the 1997 referendum. But only because it was what established power wanted. Had the British state not wanted devolution; had it not been deemed to suit the purposes of England-as-Britain, then it would not have happened. The Union gives the British political elite that power. The 1997 referendum may be held up as an example of British democracy is action. But can it be counted as democracy if it is subject to the whim of a ruling elite? Is it genuine democracy if it could have been denied – even if it wasn’t?
We voted for devolution. And we got it. That’s democracy. Isn’t it? Even if that vote could have been overruled? Even if it wasn’t overruled only because devolution was permitted only on the strict condition that it didn’t undermine the Union which guarantees the superiority of England-as-Britain? Even if the purpose of devolution was to tighten the British state’s grip on Scotland rather than loosen it?
Herein lies the dilemma. How can the exercise of democracy undermine the exercise of democracy? How might we vote away our right to vote? If we accept the fundamental democratic principle that all legitimate political authority derives from the people, how can democracy include the right to diminish that authority? Does democracy not bestow on us a responsibility to defend democracy even if – especially if – the majority favours the erosion of democracy?
Can the majority rule against majority rule? Does the minority in such a circumstance have a solemn duty to defend democracy against the majority?
These are important questions. They relate directly to Scotland’s predicament. And to how we respond to that predicament. That the Union is incompatible with democracy cannot be in doubt. How then should we relate to those who insist that the Union be maintained – even if they are the majority?
Does removing an impediment to democracy take precedence over the commonly accepted rules of the democratic process? Is the principle more important than the practice?
As a democrat, I am bound by the choices and decisions of the majority. As a democrat I am compelled to abolish the anti-democratic Union. Can I, in good conscience, accept the Union because it is favoured by the majority even knowing that the Union adversely affects the very democracy which requires that I respect the will of the people?
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