Democracy: “we” or “oui”?

For me the EU referendum debate all comes down to democracy. While there are many specific gripes about rule from Brussels – for some it is lack of control over immigration, for others it is over-regulation, for others the amount we spend on the EU or the inability to strike our own trade deals with the wider world – if we were once again a fully functioning democracy we would have control over all those matters.

Democracy is a strange creature, because just about everyone claims to believe in it. For that reason perhaps it is never really discussed and I suspect it is not deeply understood. In particular I believe there is an essential link between democracy and the nation state, to the extent that the former can not truly exist without the latter.

But many people who are suspicious of the nation state – particularly on the left – would claim to be democrats, and do not see the link between the two. This is one of the fundamental errors made by the architects and the supports of the EU, and is the subject of this post.

So, what is democracy? The essential principle that I think everyone would agree on is the principle of majority rule. You take a vote, and the majority position prevails. There is a lot more to a functioning democracy, but let’s leave that aside for now and consider that most basic question: Why should the majority view prevail?

Is the majority always right? Or is it more likely to be right? Or does the majority view perhaps define what we mean by “right”?

A little thought shows that none of those answers will do. If the majority view defined what is right, no one would be able to hold an opinion until a vote had been taken, and how would they decide how to vote? And we can all think of cases where a majority decision has not been right. There was a majority for slavery in the Confederate states of the USA (and would still have been even if the slaves had been allowed to vote).

Another view which I think gets some way to the truth holds that the purpose of democracy is to avoid conflict, and if it came to a fight the larger group would probably win, so we may as well take a vote and avoid a fight. But the larger group is not always the strongest. It might make more sense to say that the group with the largest number of young men wins. Or the most weapons, or the most money. And if I am in the minority, but think we could win a fight, why not go for it?

Democracy relies on the willingness of  the minority to accept the majority decision. The SNP accepted the result of the Scottish referendum. They did not have to agree with it, and indeed they continue to campaign for an independent Scotland as they have every right to do. But they do not dispute the result.

No purely logical argument requires a minority to accept a decision they disagree with. I think the strength of the democratic principle lies in the social nature of the human species. We are tribal by instinct. For most of our history we lived in small groups which relied on cooperation for their survival. Hunter-gatherers are largely egalitarian, they do not have chiefs. Everyone is free to leave the group, but to do so is risky. Usually there is a discussion and the group reaches a consensus on what to do next. But what can we do when there are too many people to sit around one camp fire?

A system of chiefs, kings and emperors relies ultimately on force to impose a consensus, but it is unstable as rivals do battle for the top spot. Today the most prosperous, successful and stable countries are democracies and I believe they owe this to our hunter-gatherer psychology.

The motivation to accept a majority decision comes from the  recognition that “while I want to do X we have decided to do Y“. It is the ability to say we – my group – that motivates me to accept a decision I might not like. It is not a logical argument, but it is, for a human, a compelling one.

If I can’t say we about the group that has made the decision then it looks very different. In that case we are the dissenters and the argument becomes: “we want to do X but they want to do Y, and there are more of them than there are of us“. And that is not at all a compelling argument for a human. In fact it triggers our fight-or-flight response. As well as being cooperative with the in-group humans are naturally suspicious or even hostile towards the out-group. Survival has often depended upon this instinct.

What I am saying is that in order to be willing to accept a majority decision that we don’t agree with we have to have a strong sense of identity with the group. We can test this by looking at situations in which democracy has not worked – by which I mean that minorities have not been ready to accept majority rule and conflict has resulted. We would expect this to happen where different tribal/cultural/religious identities are stronger than the sense of nationhood. And indeed that is what we see. It has proven particularly difficult to establish functional democracies in the Middle East and sub-saharan Africa where long-standing tribal loyalties do not correspond closely to national borders.

To take some recent examples, in Afghanistan and Iraq, where democratic institutions were essentially imposed by external powers, while there was considerable popular enthusiasm for the process of voting for a government, they have notably failed to produce the peaceful societies that had been hoped for. In Iraq the principal divisions are between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the linguistically and culturally distinct Kurdish people in the north. In Afghanistan there are many tribes, with the main linguistic groups being Dari and Pashto. In these places democracy has become a new arena for playing out old tribal hostilities.

Closer to home the Northern Ireland “Troubles” are a case in point. The partition of Ireland in 1921 was due to the fact that the minority Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist population in the North of Ireland identified as British and did not wish to become part of an independent Ireland. The troubles of the 1970’s-90’s resulted from the fact that the minority Catholic/Nationalist/Republican population in the North did not identify as British, and came into conflict with the P/U/Ls. Each side in this conflict was able to recite  an alternative history of grievance.

The particular conundrum for democrats was that both sides were minorities. The P/U/Ls were a minority in the whole of Ireland, while the C/N/Rs were a minority in the North. And neither group was willing to submit itself to the will of a majority with which it did not identify. The principle point of contention was where to draw the borders that define the electorate. It is clear that this is not a question that can be decided by taking a vote.

The evidence points to the fact that effective democracy requires an electorate with a sufficiently strong sense of identity that maintaining cohesion is more important than any individual political issue. When political parties are strongly identified with a particular tribe, ethnic, linguistic or cultural group, this is not likely to be the case.

I am not saying that a democracy has to be culturally, linguistically, ethnically and religiously homogeneous (though that certainly helps). There are enough examples of functioning democracies in the world where this is not the case, e.g. Canada, Belgium, Singapore, though in each case the fault lines are visible.

I am saying that a democracy needs to be a nation-state with a sense of national identity that trumps cultural/linguistic/ethnic/religious differences. If that is not the case democracy is just the dictatorship of the majority and it will not – and does not deserve to – command the support of its people. And it will fail.

The above clearly leaves many questions about democracy unanswered. (How do you decide where to draw borders? What institutions are needed to make it work?) My purpose here is just to apply this line of thought to the EU.

Most of the individual member states of the EU have a long history of being functioning countries and at least some history of being functioning democracies. Most borders coincide closely with linguistic boundaries that go back hundreds of years.

The EU however is not a functioning country or a democracy and we can see why. There is no European sense of identity that comes close to superseding the sense of being British, or French, or Polish. Sure, I will admit to being European as opposed to Asian or African. But that is not a significant part of my sense of identity. When push comes to shove, we will always feel it is “them” against “us”. There is no European “we”. This has been summarised by saying that the EU can never be a democracy because it does not have a demos.

As further evidence, there are no truly pan-European political parties. The groups of the European Parliament are mere flags of convenience for national parties with very different outlooks and priorities. No one votes for them, and hardly anyone can even name them. The truth is the EU never aspired to democracy. It is by design a bureaucratic oligarchy with democratic window-dressing.

But, some will ask, should we not somehow force ourselves to feel “European” and form a new super-nation in order to avoid wars between the old countries? That is a huge and dangerous misunderstanding. A national identity can not be conjured out of thin air. Forcing together people who do not share a sense of identity does not reduce conflict, it increases it, and this is what we are seeing. The Euro project and the austerity measures forced on the Mediterranean countries to maintain it have increased tensions between EU states. The Greeks have not expressed such animosity towards the Germans since 1945. That is a consequence of working against human group psychology. As the proverb has it, good fences make good neighbours.

But we need not despair. Nation states can cooperate peacefully, as indeed they are doing increasingly successfully all over the world, without being subsumed into pan-national superstates. The EU needs to dissolve and reform as a free trade area and cooperative arrangement between independent nation states. I believe that will happen eventually whether the UK Leaves or Remains, but it will happen all the sooner if we leave, and the death-throws of this ill-conceived experiment are not something we need to be a part of.

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