Brexit, democracy and intergenerational justice

Brexit casts a long shadow that will unquestionably affect future generations. In the debate, the demands of democracy have been called upon by both sides. But when it comes to the interests of future generations, has democracy been found wanting? Thomas Tozer, author of IF’s “A New Intergenerational Contact”, leads us through the arguments.

On both sides of the Brexit divide, you will often hear impassioned cries about democracy.

One group howls that Brexit must be followed through – not because it is good idea, but because “the people voted for it”. Not to deliver Brexit, they exclaim, would amount to a “betrayal of democracy”. A second group, meanwhile, protests that democracy requires another referendum, in order that “the people” can have the final say on any proposed Brexit deal.

What all these people share, it seems, is an urgent concern for democracy; where they differ is on the question of what democracy actually demands. But there is a pattern. With few exceptions, Leavers (i.e. those who favour Brexit over remaining in the EU) fall into the first group, while Remainers (i.e. those who favour Britain remaining in the EU) fall into the second.

Weaponising democracy

Why the correlation between people’s Brexit preferences and their beliefs about democracy? The explanation is simple. Democracy – bless its soul – is being weaponised. People are fitting democratic principles to their own Brexit agendas, rather than the other way round.

Contrary to how they present themselves, these people are not really stalwart defenders of democracy, whose opinions on a second referendum derive from a disinterested analysis of democratic principles, but quite the opposite. They are Leavers or Remainers who have found, in democracy, a powerful weapon for defending a view which in fact they hold only because it supports their prior Brexit preference, but who pretend (perhaps even to themselves) that they hold their view because of their democratic principles.

Democracy in the spotlight

Does this mean that democracy is not relevant here? No, democracy is clearly relevant; but it does imply that there are other, perhaps equally powerful, concerns at work.

One such concern is for the welfare of present and future generations. Many advocates for and against Brexit hold their position because they strongly believe that Brexit will be good/bad for the country in terms of economic growth, for example. Such considerations may point in a different direction to democratic concerns: although in general we might expect democracy to yield the result which is best for the welfare of present and future generations, putting a complex question such as Brexit – for which it is not obvious which direction is welfare-maximising – to the people may or may not produce the welfare-maximising answer.

A majority for disaster?

Indeed, the question of good governance and decision-making is not as simple as the supposed democrats present it.

Imagine that you are Prime Minister, and due to unstoppable political pressures a referendum is held on whether to go to war with a particular country. Imagine, also, that you have reliable intelligence to suggest that going to war with that country is highly likely to lead to your own country, and all its citizens, being utterly destroyed in a nuclear attack. Imagine, next, that the referendum then falls in favour of going to war. Should you do so?

Surely not. Other things being equal, the magnitude of harm your country would face if you go to war implies that a concern for the welfare of your people outweighs the democratic case for implementing the referendum result.

What of concerns for the welfare of future peoples? Suppose that a referendum is held on whether to spend the majority of current pension savings on free holidays for the over-65s, with the consequence that younger generations and two subsequent (future) generations will have to live with a pension pot that is significantly less (in real terms) than the pension pot currently enjoyed by the over-65s. Suppose, next, that due to the extremes of an ageing population and an obedient younger generation, the referendum lands on the side of the free holidays. As Prime Minister, should you implement this decision?

Again, there is at least a highly compelling case that you should not: the welfare of future generations would be compromised by such a policy, because pension wealth would be spent on the over-65s at a rate that would leave future generations (when they get old) not only no richer than the current generation of over-65s, but poorer. Concern for the welfare of future generations, and for intergenerational justice, would in this case therefore point in the opposite direction to, and count strongly against, democracy’s result.

(Furthermore, the fact that the vote would have been decided only by present generations and not at all by future generations, even though it will have a very significant (negative) impact on future generations, would surely weaken its democratic legitimacy – but there is not space to explore that further here.)

Democracy vs the welfare of future generations

Of course, it is hoped that democracy will tend to yield results that are welfare-maximising, because self-interested voters will vote for what they think will benefit them. But as mentioned above, the fact that a result is democratic does not, in itself, guarantee any such thing – factors such as misinformation, political and economic complexities, and misleading rhetoric could easily lead to a democratic result that is not welfare-maximising for the voting generations.

Moreover, the fact that a decision is democratic certainly does not guarantee that it will increase the welfare of future generations, because self-interested citizens may not think of the welfare of future people when deciding how to vote.

In order to weigh up the right course of action in a democracy, then, including after a referendum has taken place, democratic concerns must be weighed up against other concerns – especially concerns about welfare, both of present and future generations.

Considering the welfare of present generations is not so difficult, but how should we conceptualise a concern for future generations? The short answer is that we must do so through an intergenerational contract that codifies precisely what intergenerational principles should guide decision-making – but what are these principles, and would such a contract look like?

What, indeed. I’m afraid we have run out of space.*

*Editor’s note: But you could find some of the answers in Thomas Tozer’s publication, A New Intergenerational Contract: Intergenerational justice in principle and policy (Intergenerational Foundation, 2019)

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