Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Democracy (Page 1 of 6)

People versus Parliament: an interpretation

Motto: Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

 And elect another? 

(from ‘The Solution’ by Bertolt Brecht)

The UK Parliament has been prorogued from the 9th of September to the 14th of October 2019 – days before the UK’s scheduled exit from the European Union. On its final day before suspension, the Parliament acknowledged Royal Assent on the Benn Bill (which effectively turned an act blocking No Deal into law), made a formal request to the Government to acknowledge obeying the rule of law regarding Brexit, and passed a binding motion for the Government to disclose private communications concerning its decision to prorogue Parliament and its No Deal plans.

Whether the final day of parliamentary proceedings has been a moderate triumph or an unmitigated tragedy depends on whom you ask. For opponents of the Government, what really happened is that MPs defeated an abusive PM six times out of six within six days. For PM Boris Johnson, what really happened is that the Parliament took away a crucial card the UK might have played in its negotiations with the EU, making the threat of No Deal no longer credible.

The existence of different views, of winners and losers, and of mixed blessings is a fact of democratic life that does not merit special reflection. The more worrying trend regarding differences in interpretation has been that in the past week such disagreements have ranged over an alarming number of factual issues. Trick questions include: Is Parliament suspended for 2 weeks or 5 weeks? Does proroguing parliament facilitate or impede pursuing the Government’s new agenda? Is the prorogation constitutional? Would No Deal be ‘a clean break’, or merely the beginning of a long process of negotiation? And – though ultimately it did not come to this – when does Wednesday end in the House of Lords when under threat of filibusters?

The answers to such questions map onto increasingly polarised lines. Conservatives loyal to Johnson point out that the prorogation is in reality for only two weeks as party members usually take a three week conference recess in September anyway, and that such a break is needed for a clean start of the Government’s new agenda. They also regard the prorogation as a ‘perfectly normal’ and constitutional procedure, and instead, as MP Steve Baker did on SkyNews yesterday, that in reality the Benn Bill is the unconstitutional one.

Opposition MPs, however, claim the prorogation will in reality hamper their activities for the full 5 weeks, given that Parliament was planning to cancel the recess period. MPs also, understandably, express doubts that the best way of speeding up Parliamentary discussion on the new Government agenda is by suspending Parliament, and claim that in reality the motivation behind the prorogation is a desire to remove Parliamentary scrutiny at a critical time. If confirmed by evidence retrieved through the motion passed yesterday, such a motivation would be a decisive argument that the prorogation was in reality unconstitutional and, as John Bercow called it upon leaving Parliament at 1.30 AM on the 10th of September, ‘not a standard or normal prorogation.

This contestation of what happens ‘in reality’ shows a worrying rift within the interpretative community of UK representatives. Instead of a common reality providing a framework for mitigating differences and adjudicating disagreements between contesting parties, the debates of the past six days seem to have gone the other way around: not from a common reality to reducing disagreements, but from different commitments to weaponised differences in the ‘reality’ that each faction perceives. Each side has carved out pieces of reality to fit its own interpretation and has even – in the case of the Conservative party – carved out members who refused to comply with it.

This rift of the interpretative community is problematic in itself, both for the polarisation it ushers in and for vindicating concerns of an undemocratic loosening from a commitment to tell the truth. But what is more, such a rift is particularly problematic given the way the show-down between the Government and opposition MPs has been framed – as one of People vs Parliament.

The reason for this is that the meaning of the will of ‘the people’ is highly volatile. Indeed, this volatility has allowed Johnson to insist on contradictory interpretations: on the one hand, that the will of the people is clearly for a No Deal Brexit, requiring no further consultation; on the other, that we must urgently ascertain the current will of the people on Brexit through a general election. Conversely, opposition MPs regard it as urgent to ascertain the will of the people through a referendum on the final Brexit deal, but less urgent to organise general elections as required by Johnson. Yet another possibility, hinted at by John Bercow in his passionate defense of the Parliament as an institution during the speech announcing his imminent resignation, is to give less weight to the ‘will of the people’ as expressed through a referendum. This is implied by his assertion that MPs are ‘not delegates but representatives’, i.e. act not merely as mouthpieces for constituents, but as potentially a corrective force on ill-informed preferences of the kind that might be expressed in such a referendum.

This volatility of meaning of a central concept in the debate interacts dangerously with the quick dissolution of shared norms of the interpretative community. In a situation of partisan interpretations, each side can claim to act on behalf of a bedrock democratic principle while further carving out the ‘real’ will of the people to suit their agenda. Combined with the tendency to present ‘the people’ as a force under attack, such differences in interpretation diminish the possibility of dialogue and consensus, by linking the grounds of disagreement to a principle that is not negotiable. This can lead to a political landscape in which each faction paints itself as the purveyor of truth and legitimacy in a way that is by definition opposed to the others. For this reason, when following the fate of ‘the people’ as decried by the UK Parliament or Government it is important to ask which version of ‘the people’ is being erected – and which is being dissolved.


From the Vault: Good Reads on Children and Politics

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall from our archives some memorable posts from our 2018-2019 season.

Here are three good reads on issues relating to children and democracy that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 2nd September with fresh weekly posts by our regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

From the Vault: Good Reads on the Ethics and Politics of Technology

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall from our archives some memorable posts from our 2018-2019 season.

Here are some good reads on issues relating to the ethics and politics of technology that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 2nd September with fresh weekly posts by our regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

In Defence of Children’s Civil Disobedience

In this post, Nikolas Mattheis (University of Bayreuth) defends school strikes for climate against the objection that school attendance is mandatory. Children’s strikes should be viewed as civil disobedience (rather than truancy) and as a legitimate form of democratic participation.

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Universities and Democratic Legitimacy (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post I outlined an account of the mainstream liberal view about academic freedom, free speech, and their overlapping democratic purposes. According to this account the university should have an academic zone, protected by academic freedom, and aimed at furthering democratic competence, and it should also have a free speech zone, aimed at supporting democratic legitimation.

I think there’s a problem with this picture. Roughly, what goes on in the academic zone is compromised by what goes on in the free speech zone. The intellectual aims that the university is meant to serve, with a view to furthering our democratic competence, can be undermined by the kind of free speech culture that takes root in universities.

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Universities and Democratic Legitimacy (Part 1)

Free speech is vital to democracy. Alexander Meiklejohn offered a powerful defense of this idea in the mid-20th century, and since then it has gravitated towards centre stage in free speech discourse. The modern academic defenders of this view — people like Robert Post, Eric Heinze, and Ronald Dworkin — typically say that free speech isn’t just important for the health of a democracy, but that it’s also a necessary condition for democratic legitimacy. In a free society people are unafraid to broadcast their ethical convictions in public. There is a free press, an arts sector untouched by state censorship, and a cherished liberty for all to mock and criticise our leaders. The democratic government’s authority is legitimised partly through its upholding these freedoms.

But where does academic freedom fit into this picture? And what is the university’s role in ensuring the vitality and legitimacy of democratic society?

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Votes for children: going back to first principles

I’ve been planning to write something here on the arguments around lowering the voting age, for a few months now. Then Nicolas Brando beat me to it, in a very clearly argued post setting out the main positions last month. I highly recommend Nicolas’ post, which provides an excellent overview of the debate. I’m going to try to avoid covering the same ground by approaching the question from a slightly different angle.

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Should we obey immigration laws?

In many countries, governments impose legal duties on citizens regulating their interactions with unauthorized immigrants. It is for example forbidden to provide them with access to employment, housing or transportation, and even sometimes to merely assist them in some way. In France, for example, there has been a lasting debate about the so-called “délit de solidarité” (offense of solidarity) – a law forbidding citizens to bring assistance to illegal immigrants.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "délit de solidarité"

Are we, citizens of rich countries, under a moral duty to obey or disobey such laws?

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Why Should Children Have the Right to Vote?

Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. (C) www.kremlin.ru


The debate on lowering the age of enfranchisement has become a hot topic during the last couple of decades. Countries like Argentina, Austria, Brazil or Scotland, for example, have lowered their voting age to 16. Many others, such as Estonia, Malta or some German Landen, have lowered it for local elections. Arguing for the need to enfranchise 16- and 17-years old seems like a very reasonable claim. Recent research on adolescent brain development has shown that a 16-year-old has the same abilities for cold cognition as any adult. Thus, adolescents are equally equipped to make an informed choice when voting. Why, then, would it be justified to limit their rights as political citizens just because of their age?

I think few would disagree with the arguments in favour of a 16-year-old’s right to vote. But what if we go a bit further, and were to abolish age-thresholds for enfranchisement altogether? Is it such an absurd idea to claim that a 6-year-old should be allowed to vote, as David Runciman argues? What reasons do we have to justify her exclusion? And, what are the reasons for claiming that she should have this right ensured?

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What would it take to turn Facebook into a democracy?

by Severin Engelmann and Lisa Herzog*

When the relation between “Facebook” and “democracy” is discussed, the question usually is: what impact does Facebook – as it exists today – have on democratic processes? While this is an urgent and important question, one can also raise a different one: what would it mean to turn Facebook into a democracy, i.e. to govern it democratically? What challenges of institutional design would have to be met for developing meaningful democratic governance structures for Facebook?

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