Today two pieces of news are juxtaposed which should make supporters of democracy pause for thought.
In Zimbabwe we are told there is a chance that the dictator who lost the election may be about to sign an agreement with the Leader of the Opposition, offering some kind of sop to him whilst retaining the job of President. In the EU the French President acting as President of the EU Council has proposed that the irish No campaign, who won the referendum, should sit down and talk to the Yes campaign and government, who lost the referendum, about how to implement the Treaty the people rejected.
All kinds of bien savants tell us that the new African approach to democracy in Kenya and Zimbabwe offers hope for the future â€“ a government which loses stays in power but agrees to offer the winning Opposition some enhanced role beneath the losing President who retains office. That is not democracy. Democracy says that the will of the majority prevails. Democracy means that if you lose an election you bow out gracefully, to lick your wounds and work out how to do better next time. Similarly democracy means that if a government tables a referendum and loses, it has to stick to the view of the majority. It is not entitled to carry on as if nothing had happened, or to threaten another referendum because it did not like the answer. Indeed, a decent government that lost a referendum on a substantial matter like the future of the countryâ€™s constitution would resign, appreciating it had lost the support of the public.
I am astounded that these Europeans seem to think the popular will as expressed in elections or referenda matters so little, and think that in each case people in power have a right to negotiate, spin and slither around any kind of popular rejection. I want to hear our government condemning the idea that in African countries it is just fine for losers to cling to power if they offer the winners a consolation prize, and I want them to tell the French President he is making the Irish situation worse from the EU point of view by interfering in a way which suggest the EU does not care a damn about the views of the public and is desperate to overturn the popular will as soon as possible.
When the Conservatives lost office in 1997 I understood the feelings of the public. I have never through the long years of Opposition thought we had any right to a share in the government, and never wanted to change or rig the electoral system in a way which would give us more chance of winning.
The role of Opposition is an important one in a democracy. A good opposition understands that, and works away first to be a good opposition then to be a plausible alternative government. A sensible elected government seeks to build a wider coalition of support than its own party, but always remembers it only governs through consent, and has to go once it has lost that consent. Those who seek to rewrite the rules for African countries and for the EU are not democrats. They are undermining the very basis of consent which is crucial to democratic government.
True democracy is not the tyranny of the majority so much as the accountability of the government to the majority, and the availability of an alternative to keep a government more honest and responsive.If the system no longer allows the alternative to take over or the popular view in a referendum to prevail, the system is dead.