by Martin Odoni

‘Every silly bastard’

“The trouble with democracy… is every silly bastard gets a vote.”
Rimmer, Red Dwarf: Backwards, by Rob Grant, publ. 1996.

I tire of hearing many a relentless chorus of unthinking protest from Brexit supporters.

What part of ‘we’re leaving’ don’t you get?!?!?

We won! You lost! Get over it, Remoaners!

We want control of our borders back!

We want to make our own laws!

We hate Europeans because we’re racists and xenophobes!” (NOTE: This is not one they really say, but in a lot of cases, that is only because they have no wish to admit it.)

The one I am most fed up of hearing at the moment is that, “If we stop Brexit, it will destroy the credibility of British democracy.” I have heard many euroskeptics on both the right and the left raising this objection.

Protecting a credibility already destroyed

Are these people serious? They think stopping Brexit will destroy the credibility of British democracy? Have they simply not been paying attention for the last three years and more? Everything about attempting to carry out the Brexit process has destroyed the credibility of British democracy!

Most particularly, it has highlighted all of the flaws and weaknesses in a direct democratic process of consultation, and has all-but-guaranteed that no future Government will ever use such a process again. (Or at the very least it will give a powerful pretext to any future Government that wishes to avoid resorting to it.)

Just look at the Referendum in June 2016. Has there ever been a more disastrously bad advert for the notion of Government by the people? Look at the undercurrents of nastiness, hyper-aggression, racism and divisiveness it dragged to the surface of British society. See the grotesque right-wing populism it has validated. Within days, in various parts of the country, people born outside the UK, or even just people of colour, were being targeted by right wingers demanding that immigrants should immediately leave the country. It is hard to imagine any clearer example of being a chaotic, un-free society than one where people are chased out of it on the basis of their birthplace or their skin colour, and yet that is what right-wing Brexiteers have done in the name of ‘democracy’.

But more than that, the Referendum reached a plainly incorrect decision, as can be measured by all the political developments have gone wrong subsequently. More telling though is the reasons that are routinely given for leaving. Again, this is true from Leavers on both right and left. From the right, the above-mentioned demands to control our borders and make our own laws betray a complete ignorance of the relationship between the European Union and its constituent countries; the UK has control of both its own borders – it is not a member of the Schengen Area – and its laws – no law passed in Brussels has any force in the UK without ratification from the Parliament at Westminster, and no law passed in Westminster has to originate in Brussels.

There is no ‘Lexit’ on the horizon

But there are also questionable arguments from Brexiteers on the left. A popular claim is that European Union laws prevent its member nations from having state-run industries. This is not strictly true though. EU rules forbid monopolies, which admittedly makes it more difficult to nationalise industries. but, while it could be argued that some industries are natural monopolies, there are ways, even with, say, a rail network, to have private firms competing with a public firm. For instance, many cities have more than one railway line directly running between two destinations. (Take my own local line, Manchester-to-Liverpool, which has one line travelling via Newton-le-Willows and St. Helens, and a more southern line going via Warrington.) It would be perfectly possible to allocate primary routes to a nationalised service, and all the secondary routes to private firms, giving adequate numbers of privatised lines to meet the needs of EU competition laws.

Left-wing Brexiteers (‘Lexiteers’) also campaigned very much on the grounds of wanting to release the UK from the shackles of EU neoliberalism. There is considerable merit in that argument, as the peoples of Greece and Spain, among others, can attest. But the Lexiteers seem to believe with unshakable certainty that leaving the EU on any basis will make a more socialist future likelier, and promoted the idea keenly during the Referendum campaign. In reality, as matters stand there is no prospect of a ‘Lexit’. Left wing politics and economics are never going to happen so long as the Tories are running the withdrawal process, and it seems alarmingly naive that many Lexiteers imagine otherwise. Should a Labour Government be elected before departure – at least with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister – we can start talking about a ‘Lexit’ then, and genuine benefits for ordinary Britons might even follow, at least in the mid-to-long term. But in spite of what a chaotic horlicks both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have made of the last couple of years, Labour have not yet been able to force a new General Election. Until they do, and win it, Lexiteers really should be hoping that Brexit continues to be delayed. If the Tories are allowed to carry out the departure, they will do it in such a way as to make it even more difficult to implement left-leaning policies.

Ignorance drives the policy

Both right-wing Brexiteers and Lexiteers are therefore not particularly well-informed on the realities of this subject, and yet they were among the most active proponents of leaving the EU. When confronted on immensely difficult issues Brexit creates, which are proving impossible to resolve, such as the border in Ireland, it is noticeable that Brexiteers on either end of the spectrum always talk around the questions, and never have any positive suggestions to offer. The standard response from Lexiteers is to change the subject back to generalities about the evils of EU capitalism. These arguments, to repeat, are accurate more often than not, but irrelevant. Meanwhile right-wing Brexiteers usually just sneer impatiently and keep saying they are not interested and just want the Government to get on with Brexit. Neither of these responses are of any use or will speed up departure, because the Brexiteers’ wishes, whether they like it or not, are not the only ones that have to be respected and addressed.

When uninformed people with no plan are driving the narrative of a public vote, that vote is bound to be distorted and corrupted by it, and will thus lead to the kinds of comical havoc we have witnessed, and that has startled the world, over the last three years. And that same havoc will always be a powerful propaganda weapon for those who oppose democracy. “See what happens when we let the public try to govern directly! Years of chaos and gridlock! We should get rid of democratic processes.”

To be clear, I am certainly not arguing for a scale-back of Britain’s creaking old democratic institutions. On the contrary, I want them modernised and much-enhanced, with stronger safeguards and closure of a lot of loopholes. But there are reasons why we have a representative democracy and not a direct one. While there is a lot to despise about actual ‘career politicians’, legislators who do the work professionally can devote their entire work-time to studying policies and their implications, to iron out flaws and loopholes in them, and to identify any dangers therein. The man-in-the-street may or may not have the ability to do that too, but if he has another full-time job, it is very difficult for him to find the time to do it, or even to search for the information needed. This is why it was unwise to put the question of leaving the EU to the public, at least when the question was put in such a simplistic, binary “Leave or Remain” form. Way, way too many people being asked about it simply did not have enough information, for the simple reason that there was so much of it, and they would not have had the time to find it all, read it all, or digest it all. That last one is particularly awkward, as much of the information would be written in complex legal language that most people find incomprehensible. Referendum voters were therefore unaware of the enormous implications, and equally-enormous complications, of the withdrawal process, or the very clear need for a thoroughly well-worked-out plan for carrying it out. (The absence of which was my main reason for voting Remain.)

‘Prorogation’

Now, this week has taken this credibility-destruction of democracy by Brexit to new and terrifying levels. On Wednesday, the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, formally requested that the Queen suspend – or ‘prorogue’ (to use the silly ancient language of the British state) – Parliament for five weeks between mid-September and late-October. The Queen acquiesced. This will almost certainly leave too little time for Parliament to put through any legislation to delay Brexit again before the current departure date of 31st October. The move is widely, and I am sure correctly, seen as a very cynical way for Johnson to force through Brexit on that date, even without a withdrawal agreeement with the EU. It even goes beyond the loathsome tactics employed by Theresa May before him.

Many Brexiteers have come out unashamedly in favour of this move, complaining that Parliament has been “trying to reverse the result of the Referendum”, which they claim is a “refusal to accept democracy”. This is not really true, as there has been no attempt within Parliament to reverse the activation of Article 50, which is the only way to accomplish it, but more importantly, the complaint about refusing to accept democracy has been shown this week to be disingenuous. I am not the first to point this out, nor I suspect will I be the last, but what we effectively have is this; –

A Prime Minister, voted for by well under 100,000 people, with no majority in the House of Commons, and with no popular mandate at all, has asked an unelected Head of State to suspend the country’s only National forum for the People’s elected representatives, in order to force through a policy that causes a Constitutional change that no one has voted for.

NB: Before anyone comments to dispute this, no, it was certainly not what anyone voted for. Brexiteers, again disingenuously, have tried to claim for the last few months that ‘No Deal’ was the only form that a Leave vote in the Referendum would mean. But Vote Leave quite explicitly campaigned on the assumption that a deal would be negotiated before departure began; –

Vote Leave campaigned for a Soft Brexit

The Vote Leave campaign explicitly argued for Brexit on the grounds of a new deal. They did not specify whether it was a withdrawal agreement or a new trade arrangement, but as they were promising it would be negotiated before activating Article 50, it is entirely proper to assume that both would be incorporated in one package.

Vote Leave may not have been the only campaign in favour of Brexit, but the fact that it is not a definitive policy only serves to underline that ‘No Deal’ is not the only reasonable or ‘default’ interpretation of the Referendum question.

In other words, the unelected are trying to bypass the elected to force an unendorsed policy into law, and Brexiteers are genuinely acclaiming this move in the name of ‘democracy’.

Prorogation summarised

Prorogation is NEVER democratic.

Protecting democracy requires protecting Parliament, not suspending it

This is actually a far bigger and more fundamental issue than Brexit itself. Recalling Theresa May’s sordid machinations in trying to activate Article 50 without Pariament’s approval early in 2017; the Constitution has stated firmly and explicitly for over a century that any amendments to it must be approved by Parliament before they can take effect. (This is the very sovereignty that Brexiteers have insisted they want to ‘restore’ to Westminster, a sovereignty it never lost.) To allow a Prime Minister to make changes to the Constitution without endorsement from the People’s Representatives would be enormously dangerous. For the Constitution is also what places limitations on the Prime Minister’s power. If the Prime Minister is allowed to make Constitutional changes without requiring anyone’s permission, then he/she will be able to remove those limitations at will. He/she would effectively be allowed to do absolutely anything by decree. It would be the single largest step towards a dictatorship.

Proroguing Parliament

Democracy seems to mean “Anything Brexiteers want”.

And the form Brexit takes will also make significant changes to that Constitution. Let us suppose that the UK is allowed to ‘crash out’ with No Deal, and Parliament is deprived of a chance to intervene by the Prime Minister suspending it without its approval. The country will have taken a small but crucial step towards accepting that the Prime Minister has powers as absolute as the occasional Lord Protectors of England’s unhappy past. The only real way now of stopping this is for there to be a successful Parliamentary Motion of No Confidence in the Government before the prorogation takes effect. Brexiteers will almost certainly oppose such a Motion, but that is foolish. They seem not to realise that their own rights are at stake, and that they are fighting on the side of those who wish to take them away.

Too many people have forgotten what Parliament is there for. Its first duty has always been to protect the rights and liberties of the people from the tyranny of unaccountable power. In fairness to the public, that forgotten legacy is partly the fault of MPs themselves, especially the aforementioned ‘career politicians’ who are generally only really interested in ‘job-for-life’ self-enrichment. There have always been sadly too many of them. But that duty is still very genuine, because the truth is, there really is no other institution in the British state that serves that purpose. The relish displayed by Brexiteers at seeing Parliament suspended in this manner is naive and myopic. They are assuming that a Referendum, which is non-binding in law and is only ever called on an ad hoc basis rather than on a compulsory one, is somehow more important to ‘democracy’ than the legal structures that define it.

The Conservative Party leadership are now openly discussing summary deselection of any Tory MPs who rebel against No Deal, without any consultation of the party membership or local constituents. Deselection by that approach is just rank authoritarianism, and stands in horrifying contrast to Labour’s planned reselection process by unswervingly democratic means.

Not democratic principle, but emotional blackmail

The dismantling of the UK’s post-war social democratic institutions in Margaret Thatcher’s time was the start of a long, slow process of de-democratising the country. The more that state industries and structures that were sold off and privatised, the fewer authorities and services there were that were democratically accountable to the public, and the more there were that were answerable to consumers instead. This in effect upped the amounts of power that were allocated according to money; the more money you had, the more you could buy, and the more the nation’s services would therefore answer to you. Since the 1980s, plutocracy has advanced, and democracy has retreated. The latest ‘castration’, as it were, of Parliament, prising it away from its Constitutional authority, is a logical onset of that same process, even if it is not consciously devised as part of it. It is a blow against the rights of British citizens, and yet Brexiteers are cheering it as a triumph for democracy.

It is now unmistakable that, despite right-wing Brexiteers’ pompous rants about “the will of the people”, their desire to drive home Brexit has little to do with democratic principle. They never show remotely this passion, or even interest, when any other Manifesto policy is shelved or delayed, and they will accept any cost, even destroying the foundations of what democracy the UK has, to accomplish this one policy, suggesting they have an infantile tunnel vision. The foaming-mouthed demands for Brexit’s enforcement are about a selfish, ill-informed wish to leave the EU for its own sake, and the cries of, “You don’t believe in democracy” are an ugly attempt to silence honest opposition with emotional blackmail.