Is Truth Requisite in Democracy?

“Democracy is a device that insures we are governed no better than we deserve”*

The result of the United Kingdom/European Union referendum was too late for inclusion in the July edition; it’s also now too early to comment on the fall-out. However, undoubtedly there’s been a seismic shift and changes will eventually be seen.   So does anything worry me yet?

Well, yes; as a strong advocate for due-process and procedural fairness I‘ve found the way the term ’democracy’ has been used to be quite disturbing. In a truly free and democratic society it should not be necessary to keep reminding people of the same.

It now seems that anyone who was opposed to the referendum (in the first place) or its result (secondly) is strongly reminded that it was, after-all,  ‘democratic’ and  they are  then accused of  (amongst other things) being ‘undemocratic’. 

So just what is ‘democracy’ and how important is it?  Perhaps it’s a convenient term to disguise the miss-doings of rulers and governments?  The rules of any democratic-process are almost always set by those in over-all power. Could it be that those rules reflect their best chances of maintaining that power?  Many elections throughout-the-world are reported as being democratic, when there are, in fact, huge irregularities.   In some cases a small step away from the rule of a dictator may seem like a huge leap forward for democracy; whilst others may abhor the remaining deficit.

In light of recent events in the United Kingdom, maybe it is time to give some thought to this rather well-worn ‘democratic’ concept.  Firstly, is the meaning of ‘democracy’ so deeply ‘carved in stone’ that it doesn’t evolve and does any evolution generally follow political necessity and manoeuvrings?  Secondly, and critically importantly; can there be a true democracy without absolute truthfulness?   

So does ‘democracy’ evolve?  It’s not that long ago that the British parliamentary system disenfranchised women and the property-less.   Was that then considered democratic?   At this time Britain heralded itself as a bastion of fairness and democratic values. Things moved on.

In 2016 and the Scottish Referendum on Independence, it was decided that the fairest approach was to give a vote to 16 and 17 year olds.  Was this an attempt at broadening the democratic nature of the vote or merely political expediency?   Certainly the same group were not offered a vote in the UK/EU referendum. Can both approaches to enfranchisement be equally democratic?  There are other issues here, why not proportional representation?  Who draws up and retains the existing constituency boundaries, ensuring that in UK Parliamentary elections, not all votes are equal?  Why not allow British citizens, who’ve legally been exercising their right to reside in the European Union for more than 15 years, to vote?  Who decides what is democratic?

If you’ve followed the arguments surrounding the ‘right to vote’ in the Labour leadership contest, you’ll see that there’s been disquiet between the Labour Party National Executive Committee and the Judiciary about who can vote in this leadership contest.  The NEC wanting the rules (and at the time of writing, winning the debate) to favour the outcome they desire, i.e., stopping people from voting.  Is that democracy?

We are bearing witness to ‘democracy’ in action during the election for the next President of the United States of America.  Here we see that money and self-interest can potentially buy electoral success.  Sometimes the will of the people, or perhaps the choices they are offered, can be perverse.

So, without truth can there be ‘democracy’? If a decision is made on the basis of false assertions does it remain ‘democratic’?  Consider the democratic verdict of a jury that condemns an innocent man on the basis of false witnesses. Is this innocent man then actually guilty?  Do we say he should accept his guilt and serve his sentence?  At least with the UK’s judicial system this man would have a right of appeal.  Perhaps we should consider whether this right should automatically be available where falsehoods have affected a political outcome? 

Consider, for a moment, The Iraq Inquiry** which investigated inter alia the validity of the statements that informed Parliament’s ‘democratic’ decision, to enter the Iraq War.  There’ve been subsequent cries of foul-play and ‘war-crimes’ due to inaccuracies and untruths.  So maybe it’s safe to assume that honesty (in decision-making) is only important in the context of historical analysis and with the benefit of hindsight.   Maybe at the time of the decision-making political expediency trumps factual accuracy.   

Nobody seems to be screaming ‘foul’ about the miss-information provided to the voting public in the UK/EU referendum.  The results of the vote could have life-long (or longer) consequences and so the quality of the decision-making has to be critical.  Can the vote have been democratic if the evidence given to inform the voters was deliberately erroneous?    Why not appeal, as would the wrongly convicted man?

Since the referendum almost everyone seems to be saying (notably Politicians*** who vehemently supported the case for ‘remain’) “we must accept this ‘democratic’ decision”. The term ‘democracy’ (as with the term guilty) is subjective and should always and only be viewed in the light of the full facts and circumstances. Never, in my view, accept this term without consideration of the quality of the decision-making.    

Maybe in years to come and with the benefit of hindsight there’ll be an inquiry into this referendum (lasting years and costing millions) to discover just who misled who and who dared to besmirch the ethereal notion of ‘democracy’.  You can be sure that this will all happen far too late and only when it is politically expedient so to do.  The wrong-doers (if so found) will be long-gone.

*George Bernard Shaw


***A notable exception to this was Ed Miliband MP whilst giving the Tony Benn Memorial Lecture on July 18th this year, on the subject of Brexit.  He never said the word ‘democracy’ once.  I am still trying to work out for myself – why not!


Anna Atkinson  published 9/16