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Democracy is much more than ‘the will of the people’

Democracy is much more than ‘the will of the people’

In the third in his series on ‘Faith in Democracy’, Jonathan Chaplin argues that in Christian political thought, democracy is far more than popular will. This tradition calls us to embrace constitutional democracy, even – especially – when it thwarts our ambitions. 27/05/2021

In its 2019 annual Audit of Political Engagement, the Hansard Society asked if Britain ‘needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules’. 54% of respondents said yes; only 23% said no.

Even given the extraordinary circumstances of the long drawn out parliamentary stalemate over Brexit that dominated 2019 – preventing government from implementing ‘the will of the people’ (or, at least, of the ‘17.4 million’ who voted for it) – this is a disturbing outcome. This is especially so for a nation that flatters itself as a – or, for some, the – birthplace of democracy. Leavers should be as alarmed by it as Remainers.

Given the raw public discontent revealed in Hansard’s survey (on other questions as well), it was perhaps not wholly surprising that in December 2019 a plurality of eligible voters (not a majority) promptly elected a leader who not only ‘got Brexit done’ but also showed a willingness to break a few rules along the way, indeed deliberately to break the law.[1]

Voters did this in spite of two equally extraordinary rebukes delivered to government during the Brexit process by the Supreme Court.

In the first, in 2017, the Court blocked the government from invoking the ‘Article 50’ procedure for withdrawal from the EU solely on the basis of its own ‘prerogative power’ to conclude treaties. Since Parliament had taken us in, the court reasoned, only Parliament had the authority to take us out. In the second, in 2019, it rejected the Prime Minister’s attempt to prorogue Parliament for an extended period just when it was scrutinising the draft Withdrawal Agreement, and with no rational justification.

In both cases, the court robustly reasserted the principle of the accountability of government to Parliament, as the means by which ‘citizens are protected against the arbitrary exercise of executive power’ (as it put it in the 2019 case).[2]

These rulings – maddening for some, exhilarating for others – were examples of the proper and necessary operation of a constitutional democracy. In such a democracy, on the one hand, citizens are indeed seen as called to be full participants in the struggle for justice and the common good and not passive recipients of decisions handed down by organs of state. They enjoy ample channels for the representation of their convictions and interests and for their active, and sometimes disruptive, participation at all levels of politics. On the other hand, such a system will establish clear constitutional parameters designed to ensure that political decisions, however ‘popular’, comply with the rule of law and other basic principles of constitutional justice (such as the protection of minority rights).

It is true that there was a longstanding preference in much of Christendom for monarchy, or for a ‘mixed’ system in which monarchical and aristocratic parts of the system still prevailed over the popular. But by the middle of the last century a broad consensus had emerged in western Christianity around a model which substantially upgraded the popular voice (such as by universal suffrage) while laying down robust constitutional restraints on the expression of that voice.

While Christians can survive and even thrive in other systems, they should today, as one writer aptly puts it, espouse a ‘preferential option for constitutional democracy’.[3]

Christian political thinkers are, accordingly, sceptical of ‘plebiscitary democracy’ (in the state) in which all major political issues, however complex or divisive, are decided by majority popular vote. They would hold that this is to abandon the vocation of government itself, the moral purpose of which is affirmed as noble and necessary in scripture and tradition. Such a model also risks playing into the hands of authoritarian demagogues (such as Trump, Bolsonaro or Putin) skilled at manipulating ‘the will of the people’ for partisan ideological ends at election times, but much less willing to share power with the people once they have won it.

Such a model of direct popular democracy would also abandon the vocation of representation. Today, this is discharged both by elected officials and, no less important, by many other organs of popular representation such as trades unions, professional bodies, parties, campaigning groups, citizens’ assemblies, or grass–roots social movements. Representation is not just electing MPs to lobby for your or your constituency’s interests. From the standpoint of Christian constitutional democracy, it should be seen as a much wider vocation of interpreting and communicating to government the people’s considered judgements on justice and the common good.

Whatever we make of Brexit, or the substance of those Supreme Court rulings, we should be grateful that we have in the UK at least a partial approximation of a functioning constitutional democracy, whatever its numerous defects and corruptions, and vigilant about sustaining and improving it. In rendering those judgments, the Supreme Court judges were not ‘enemies of the people’ but friends of constitutional democracy.

The principles of the rule of law and the accountability of government to Parliament and (in a specific sense) to the courts are among the fundamental conditions of a constitutional democracy. They witness to a deep commitment in Christian political thought to just, limited government – government that accepts its God–given mandate to pursue justice while acknowledging its constant propensity to arrogance and folly. There must therefore be firm boundaries around government’s deployment of the momentous and thus potentially destructive power of the state.

There are many other such conditions, such as the diffusion of power vertically within the state (as in devolved assemblies), the defence of a ‘civil society’ made up of many independent associations, a robust suite of individual civil and political rights, fair voting systems, and more (see Faith in Democracy, chapter 3).

In designing the basic parameters of a constitutional democracy, rallying cries such as ‘the will of the people’ – or ‘popular sovereignty’ – are of little use. They are all too easily weaponised by governments or populist movements (on right, left or centre) in order to exclude the convictions and interest of significant minorities of citizens from adequate democratic consideration.

None of this is to suggest that, had constitutional democracy worked better in the UK, an outcome like Brexit would have been prevented. It would, however, have been much more legitimate and far less divisive.

A just constitutional democracy, then, will both open up wide avenues for the vigorous expression of citizens’ convictions and interests and simultaneously limit the bare ‘will of the people’ so as to discipline that will towards justice and the common good. A wide–ranging agenda of reform across many aspects of British democracy thereby beckons. Christians should draw on the deep reserves of their own traditions in order to contribute to it.

Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM.


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[1] As conceded by a government minister in Parliament, in defence of the Internal Market Bill, which, he admitted, would indeed ‘break’ international law, although only in a very specific and limited way. In fact, the Bill also threatened to undermine domestic law. See https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2020/09/23/ronan-cormacain-the-united-kingdom-internal-market-bill-and-breach-of-domestic-law/

[2] R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister [2019] UKSC 41, para. 46.

[3] Kenneth L. Grasso, ‘Beyond Liberalism: Human Dignity, the Free Society and the Second Vatican Council’, in Kenneth L. Grasso et al, eds, Catholicism, Liberalism and Communitarianism (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), 30.

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021).

Posted 27 May 2021

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