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Theresa May and the subversion of representative democracy

Megan Field discusses how the manipulation of language is subverting representative democracy.

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Credit: Number 10

"Post truth" is now a frequently used phrase amongst political commentators; objective facts have been displaced by appeals to emotion and personal belief. However, on Tuesday 18th April we witnessed a new phenomenon. The decay of language, and with it the subversion of representative democracy.

History teaches that concepts are social constructs whose meaning evolves over time but this transition doesn't usually occur in the space of nine months. I am referring to Theresa May's ambiguous use of the word "stability". On Thursday 30th June, 2016, the soon to be Prime Minister stated with some certainty "There should be no general election until 2020" , the British people need a period of "stability". Then stood outside Number 10, she uttered a phrase which is paradoxical at best, oxymoronic at worst. "Division at Westminster", she proclaimed, is causing "damaging uncertainty and instability."

In a broad sense, "stability" would denote a state of existence which is resilient to change, adaptable, offers a sense of continuity. Perhaps this would translate to a political system characterised by well reasoned, meaningful debate and a fair hearing of the opposition so as to ensure the endurance of democracy over time. Indeed, this is what the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, at least ostensibly, aimed to achieve. It is with regret that I say this ideal has now been shattered. After ninety minutes of muted discussion in the Commons Theresa May had succeeded in passing a motion which put the UK on the path to their second general election in under two years.

The problem with what Mrs May said on tuesday should be clear to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of how a representative democracy should function. All qualms about the genuine intentions of politicians aside, democracy thrives on debate and freedom of expression. In the spirit of JS Mill, "the beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the world to prove them unfounded". Opposition of whatever degree is not to be dismissed as an impediment to good governance but rather valued as an instrument of legitimacy.

What's more is democracy is supposed to be something which is done with us, maybe even, dare I say it, for us. Mrs May can defend to the death that this is in the long term interests of "stability", whatever that means; the reality is, as articulated by Nick Robinson on Radio Four's Today programme, our Prime Minister is seeking a blank cheque. Let me bring it your attention that the electorate are being offered no new policy, not even a customary television debate. Theresa May is exploiting the luxury of opinion polls and the less than admirable state of the opposition to acquire unchallenged supremacy in EU negotiations and beyond.

So how do the people feel about this decision? I shall refer you to Brenda from Bristol, the lady informed by a BBC news correspondent that there was to be another general election: "You're joking? Not ANOTHER ONE. Oh for God's sake ... I can't ... Honestly, I can't stand this." There is something to be said for the fact that this candid and off the cuff remark has gone viral among the apathetic, disenfranchised and downright fed up majority of the British public.

Democracy requires more than merely the opportunity to participate to function effectively; it requires right intention, citizen engagement and above all a meaningful dialogue with the public. Theresa May has exploited the language of democracy. At such a time the sentiment of George Orwell, that "political chaos", or in this case the subversion of representative democracy, is linked to the "decay of language" rings uncomfortably true.

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1 Comment

Peter Sullivan Posted on Thursday 26 Nov 2020

There is a good case to be made that, although what you say about representative democracy is in general true, in the case of there having been a national referendum with a binary question, then parliament should unequivocally follow the spirit of the decision made by the people. The referendum was won by those who voted to leave the EU. Leaving the EU entails having all of the UK's laws made by the UK government. There are a great number of MPs, mainly, but not exclusively Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs, who never wanted to leave and still wish the UK to remain in the Single Market, which includes free movement and the source of this law is the EU, not the UK. Free movement is not some minor issue. Therefore, in this case, although I'm not an unquestioning fan of Theresa May, I do think she is right to call a General Election and that that does not amount to subverting representative democracy.


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