I read the word “undemocratic” fairly regularly, usually in the comments underneath these blogs, but often in the blogs themselves or elsewhere in the great internet pontificatosphere of which I am a part. Britain’s membership of the EU, our immigration policies, or the drive towards renewable energy, is often described as undemocratic: we didn’t have a say, and therefore we are being denied our rights as citizens of a free society. In the last few days, David Cameron’s push to enshrine same-sex marriage in British law is the main focus of ire from the defenders of democracy. It’s probably worth, then, examining exactly what we mean by “democratic”.
In one sense, it is of course true. No one has asked the British people in a referendum whether they supported the gay marriage bill. That does seem a bit much to expect, though. No one put the Local Government Finance Act 2012 to the British people in a referendum either. Since the voting franchise expanded beyond the few hundred free men of Athens, it has become increasingly implausible to put every proposal that comes before Parliament to the vote of the wider society.
Instead, we have a representative democracy, in which we choose the people who we think will best defend our interests or that of the country, and send them for us to fight our corner. I don’t imagine this will be news to anyone.
What is worth asking is whether our representatives should follow public opinion, or attempt to lead it. Is an elected politician expected to obey the wishes of the electorate, or should they follow their own moral code? If the former, then presumably they should pay attention to opinion polls and so on; if the latter, they should constantly do what they think is right, regardless of public opinion, and take their chances at the ballot box. Obviously in reality they behave somewhere in between.
If we assume for the sake of argument, though, that acting “democratically” means doing what the voters want, then is supporting gay marriage “undemocratic”? Outside the Westerham George and Dragon, no. Depending on how you phrase the question, between 43 per cent and 65 per cent of the population support same-sex marriage. A YouGov poll today found that a clear majority (55 per cent) of British voters said “support” when asked the question “Would you support or oppose changing the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?” – and “strongly support” outnumbered “tend to support”. A Populus report in March found 65 per cent agreed with the statement “Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships”. When the question is phrased as a series of options between legal marriage, civil partnership, or neither, as an earlier YouGov poll and an Angus Reid poll did, legal marriage was still the most popular option if no longer a majority, at 43 per cent in each poll. As far as we can tell, short of putting it to a referendum, the most popular course of action with the British public is a legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
But before Lefties get too pleased with that, they should bear in mind the implications. By this measure, the reintroduction of the death penalty would also be a democratic move: polls have put support for it at between 65 and 70 per cent for particularly terrible crimes. No doubt liberals who demand that the Government follow the will of the people on gay marriage (or drug-law liberalisation) would be appalled at the suggestion that they should bring back hanging, but their logic points that way.
Of course, if we hold that politicians should behave as their conscience dictates, then they are welcome to ignore public opinion on both these issues and see if people care enough to hold them to account. The only problem with that is that it only works if there is a credible alternative. Since the leaders of all three “main” parties agree on both gay marriage and the death penalty, that doesn’t seem to be the case: even though they will all allow a free, unwhipped vote on the bill, voters who disagree with their representative’s views can’t express their disapproval by switching their support.
Which is why, for perhaps the first and only time in my career, I’m going to sing the praises of Ukip, who buck the status quo on both issues. Anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty: Nigel Farage and his happy band of warriors are the only people providing the alternative. Without them, the anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty (and anti-EU, of course) voter has nowhere to go. In 2010, they fielded a candidate in 572 of the 650 constituencies; it’s a safe bet that they’ll do so in every last one this time around.
In general, when someone complains about something or other being “undemocratic”, I assume they mean that democracy has done something they don’t like. But on these two major issues, at least, without Ukip, there would be no credible protest vote for the sizeable groups of people who disagree with the political status quo. This honestly wasn’t the conclusion I expected to reach when I started writing this piece, but here it is: thank heaven for Ukip, the little pack
of madmen who allow Britain to call itself a democracy.
• A apologetic note. I always do this, when I try to write something positive about people I disagree with: I end up putting some throwaway line in which hugely offends everyone and overwhelms the point. In this case it was “little pack of madmen”, which was meant to be sort of affectionate. So, sorry about that. Also, apparently, while I’m abasing myself, while lots of high-profile Ukippers support the death penalty, it’s not the official party line. So well done me, eh?