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Protesting democracy

It’s been an odd week. With Britain’s 52% vote to leave the EU shocking the pollsters, news websites and social media has been awash with anguish, glee, and wild conjecture. 

Beyond the actual events of the vote, results, and ensuing political resignations, there was the strata of expert opinions, opinion columnists, and status updates to dig through, and of course—this is the digital age after all—online petitions to sign. Shared widely by Remain voters after the results became clear, the most popular petition, calling for the Government “to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum,” has already picked up 3.4million “e-signatures.”

For Leave voters celebrating their win, the popularity of the petition with disappointed Remain voters stinks of sour grapes; a desperate attempt by the losers to secure a “do-over” for themselves. There are two problems with that simple view. First, Nigel Farage—one of the prominent faces of the Leave campaign—told The Mirror on 16 May that he’d push for another referendum if the Remain vote won by a small margin, saying, “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.” Second, the petition was created over a month before a result was known, so its creator can’t be accused of partisan opportunism. 

It’s more likely he was motivated by a belief that democracy itself is imperfect. When changing the constitutional arrangements of a nation—as Farage intimates—a broader consensus than 52% is desirable. While I’d agree in principle, the terms of this referendum were set out well in advance by elected representatives; the time to protest the process is long past. 

For the Western generation that has grown up without war on our own doorsteps, it’s easy for us to think of democracy as a self-evident virtue, a naturally occurring guiding light that—when allowed to flourish—will lead us to the right answers. I detect this sentiment in many of the Remain supporters who want a second referendum, the idea that “more democracy” would obviously give them the “right” result. 

But democracy is simply a tool we use to organise and govern ourselves, with the hope of avoiding totalitarian dictatorships, royal whims, and bloodshed in war. Like any tool, it can be used for good or ill, depending on the knowledge, character, and intent of those using it. The trade-off implicit in a democratic society is that we have to agree to disagree civilly with our ideological opponents, and peacefully abide by the decisions that result from elections. We may not agree with the outcome, but we must respect the process. 

A clear reminder of the bloody alternative to this awkward yet peaceful constitutional coexistence was shown by a competing petition to the UK Government, requesting “A rematch for the Battle of Hastings in 1066, as I am unhappy with the result.” 

At the time of writing, this petition had been removed by Government officials. 

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