Socrates in the House of Lords: What is Democracy and Does Theresa May Believe in it?


The fact that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, made an unprecedented appearance in the House of Lords speaks volumes over her respect for parliamentary democracy. It is now patently clear that the EU referendum that took place on June 23rd 2016 was flawed ever since the former prime minister, David Cameron, promised the vote in the Conservative party’s election manifesto in 2015. The reason for its inclusion in the manifesto was solely a power struggle between pro- and anti-EU fractions within the Conservatives, together with the increasing threat of the extreme right-wing UK Independence Party, UKIP. During the campaign, it was also obvious that the Remain campaign was half-heartily run by a large number of Conservative MPs. Theresa May seems only too pleased to carry Brexit out, no matter what the consequences, and she was even ready to by-pass parliament in order to do so. If it were not for the hard and courageous work carried out by Gina Miller, parliament would not have been consulted. This being said, it is clear that in attending the House of Lords, Theresa May was, if not by-passing democracy, at least trying to bend it as hard as she could in her favour.


It reminds me of the few times where I ask my 12-year-old to do something that he doesn’t feel like doing, and I stand behind him to make sure that he does what I told him.

[The Bill] was not amended [in the House of Commons]. I hope that the House of Lords will pay attention to that. – Theresa May

Is Theresa May threatening the House of Lords? It sounds like it to me. OK, the House of Lords is an outdated institution, but it seems to me that all democracies that are worthy of the name have two chambers in order to refrain or at least question government decisions. In any case, what has Theresa May to worry about? It is quite clear that most politicians in the House of Commons do not have the courage to oppose her, and in the House of Lords, I´m sure that many a peer will not rock the ship out of pure fear that the vessel will disappear forever, following an abolition of this perennial institution.

It isn’t enough that the referendum campaign was based on a pack of lies, causing widespread hatred of anything foreign, and, so far as I’m concerned, directly responsible for the tragic death of a member of parliament. Theresa May continues in her despicable handling of the whole Brexit fiasco under the protective banner of “the will of the people”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the referendum has uncovered deep and violent feelings in a large proportion of the British electorate, which, up until June 23rd 2016, were kept hidden by a status quo maintained by the ruling elite. Theresa May must also remember that the referendum result was close, that 48% of the electorate voted to remain in the EU, and, that if 16 and 17 year-old citizens had been able to vote, as they did in Scotland, the result would probably have gone against Brexit.

Where MP´s in both Houses should stand against Theresa May, is on the question of maintaining the acquired rights of EU citizens already residing in the UK. I am not the only one to firmly believe that this should be done unilaterally. That the EU have also ignored the founded concerns of British citizens living in other EU countries is also shameful. Both the UK and the EU should not wait until the official negotiations get under way to clarify our position and thus reassure millions of EU citizens on both sides of the Channel.

In the EU referendum, the UK voters were asked a simple question that, in my view, required a complicated answer. The reaction and political chaos after the referendum result underlines the fact that the wrong question was posed. For such an important and life changing issue as EU membership, the question posed should have been carefully phrased, allowing every voter to reason through and come up with a valid recognition of the implications that his or her vote would have. At the best of times, a referendum is a dodgy affair. For the former socialist French prime minister Michel Rocard, a referendum is “a national excitement where we put everything into one pot. A question is asked, people ask themselves others, and come to vote based on reasons that have nothing to do with the original question.” 

“The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

Let me take an example from the Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was renowned for his wisdom but according to him, he knew absolutely nothing.

He spent his whole life trying to find out what he didn’t know through questioning. This is related to us in the famous dialogues written by Plato (Socrates himself didn’t write anything).

For Socrates, the most important tool for acquiring knowledge was the question.

Consider the two questions below on” what is piety?”, as discussed in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. You must give a straight answer YES or NO, like in the referendum:

Question 1: is an action pious because it is approved by the Gods?

Question 2: is an action approved by the Gods because it is pious?

Think about it. These two questions appear similar but in fact differ considerably. In the first, the piety of the action is entirely dependent upon its approval by the Gods. If the Gods are drunk they won’t react in the same way to piety as when they are sober (cynical, but you know what I mean). In the second question, the action is intrinsically pious and therefore cannot be but approved by the Gods. The two questions get different answers.

What has this to do with the referendum? Well, it is my belief that the question posed on the voting ballot (“Do you want the UK to remain a member of the EU or do you want the UK to leave the EU”) is fundamentally flawed.

I couldn’t vote because I have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years. If I could have voted, of course I would have voted YES, but this would have been a real ethical problem for me because:

YES – I want to remain in the EU

NO – I don’t want to remain in the EU as it now is

How would someone like me vote? And I suspect that I wasn’t alone in this. There should have been at least two questions: the first about the EU, the second about the EU as it now is, for example. By placing “as it now is” at the end of the second referendum question, the UK would have effectively given the EU a warning that change is necessary for the UK to stay in. This would have been much more constructive, under the condition that the EU would listen, of course. Or am I dreaming? Well, maybe I am, that’s one of the side-effects of philosophy. But talking of dreams and certainty, one thing I do know for certain: smashing the EU door is certainly not the political answer to the UK’s philosophical dream.