The fight for Brexit is a fight for democracy

The masses – not lawyers or experts or politicos – should shape the nation.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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Calmly but urgently, we need to recognise the seriousness of what happened in Britain last week.

Courtesy of a court case brought by rich, angry supporters of keeping Britain in the EU, Brexit is no longer the property of the people. Instead it’s been handed over to a political class largely hostile to it. It has been made subject to the narrow machinations of a political and media elite who have made no secret of their loathing for it, and for those who voted for it. The greatest democratic cry in British political history has been removed from the demos, from public ownership, and turned into a thing to be gabbed about and reshaped by those who, in David Attenborough’s words, are ‘probably wiser than we are’. It’s very serious indeed: the life is being drained not only from Brexit, but from the very ideal of democracy; from the notion that a people, whether directly or through parliament, ought to be the ultimate arbiters of their nation’s political character.

If you say this, however, you’ll be branded ‘unhinged’. Leading Remainers present last week’s court case as simply a procedural thing, an attempt to ensure that Brexit is enacted in a clean, constitutional fashion. It is just about ‘process, not politics’, says Gina Miller, the wealthy woman who spearheaded the case. Someone should replace the definition of the word ‘disingenuous’ in the dictionary with a photo of these people. If the case was about process not politics, then why did its outcome instantly unleash explicitly political arguments for caveating or even overthrowing Brexit? Far from giving rise to a procedural discussion of how to make sure Brexit happens ‘properly’, the case deepened and emboldened the discussion of whether it should happen at all. It inflamed the arrogant assumption of the political class that it must interpret the ill-formed cry made by the public and make Brexit politically and economically palatable. And the court case did this because that’s what its claimants intended it to do. It is entirely about politics, not process.

Witness the speed and glee with which leading Remainers seized upon the court’s ruling that parliament must rule on Brexit as a chance to do down Brexit. They recognised their moment had come, that the opportunity they’ve been seeking for four months – to wrest Brexit from the rash, emotional non-experts of the great swarm of public life and hand it over to cleverer, cooler people – had arrived. So within hours of the ruling, Polly Toynbee, self-styled conscience of decent, liberal England, said parliament must ‘save us’ from the ‘havoc’ of Brexit. Parliament must stand up for ‘the national interest’ and ‘rise above… the views of their constituents’. Rarely does one read such openly reactionary demands for overthrowing the democratic will in favour of an abstract, elite-defined ‘national interest’. If this is ‘process’, it’s a process designed to assert the political power of a tiny elite over the political demands of a great mass of people.

Then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would block the triggering of Article 50 until it had wrested from the government a commitment to maintaining access to the Single Market – that is, until it had hammered Brexit into something it considers politically acceptable. Labour leadership loser Owen Smith said the court case gave parliament the opportunity to legislate for a second referendum, asking the public ‘if they are certain they want to leave Europe [sic]’. He, too, rightly spied in the court ruling a chance to weaken Brexit by going back to the public after months and months of top-down fearmongering about the consequences of Brexit and effectively saying to them: ‘You really want to do this?’ Others were joyful that the court ruling meant the House of Lords will also get to rule on Brexit and might just strike it down, or at least grind it down. These ‘white knights in ermine’ could ‘rescue us from Brexit yet’, said a writer for the Independent. Being ‘impervious’ to party politics – that is, being unelected, being above the tribal, democratic throng – these ‘noble members’ might just knock Brexit into shape, he said.

Process not politics? How stupid do they think we are? Everything that has happened post-court ruling has been deeply, profoundly political. And entirely in keeping with the elite fury over Brexit that has been raging since 23 June. The delight with the ruling is fuelled, not by a serious attachment to constitutional procedure, but by a thirst to make big political matters the property of those with expertise, who apparently have cooler minds than ours, and who might use their ‘courage and conviction’ to ‘stop Brexit’, in the words of philosopher AC Grayling on the day of the ruling. All of this points to the most troubling aspect of this explicitly political handing of Brexit from the public to the political class: the way it poses as a defence of parliamentary sovereignty while in reality emptying parliamentary sovereignty of its historic content and its democratic spirit.

What is explicitly happening here, before our eyes, is that parliament is being juxtaposed to the people. Parliament is being presented as tamer, or better still overthrower, of commoners’ will, of public opinion, of popular passion, of the ‘grave error’ made by the mob, as Toynbee refers to our decision on 23 June. There are open calls for parliament to act in contradiction of the majoritarian view, or at least to temper the majoritarian view to the point of making it unrecognisable; and these calls are being made in the name of parliamentary sovereignty. Think about this. What they value about parliamentary sovereignty, the reason they’re suddenly so interested in it after years of cheering its dilution by the EU, is that it might be used as a weapon against popular sovereignty. Posing as defenders of democracy, they seek to destroy the spirit of democracy. This is not only a grave assault on popular will but also on the institution of parliament itself, which derives its legitimacy, to the extent that it has any left, from the public. Their urge to weaken Brexit is so strong they’re willing to empty parliament of its moral, historic meaning and in the process threaten the very nature of democratic politics in Britain.

This is the seriousness of what has just happened. A popular demand has been turned into the political plaything of an elite that disdains it, and parliament is being pleaded with to take a stand against the public, against the people who are the very substance of its remit and existence. Remainers present parliament’s newly gained authority over Brexit as a blow against an allegedly tyrannical, unilateral PM – Theresa May – whom they accuse of acting like a Tudor monarch for saying she wanted to invoke Article 50 early next year. They forget – actually, no they don’t; they arrogantly overlook – the fact that 17.4million people demanded Brexit; that it is not the brainchild of May, who opposes it, but of the majority, who want it. They act as if Brexit hasn’t been decided upon and settled, when it has, by the people who really ought to steer politics, parliament and the future: us, the demos. Brexit isn’t to be finessed, far less thwarted; it is to be acted upon, now, and then afterwards we can discuss, democratically, what we want post-Brexit Britain to look like. Anything else is a naked evasion of, or destruction of, the democratic will.

Since the court case, there has been hotheadedness on all sides. The tabloid press holds judges singlehandedly responsible for messing up Brexit, overlooking the broader menace to Brexit coming from the political establishment, the media and Brussels. Remainers compare everyone they don’t like to Hitler: the Daily Mail is Hitler for criticising judges, the public is Hitler for wanting Brexit in the first place. What this nasty discourse points to is the corrosion of serious public life, the inability of pretty much anyone in authority or the commentariat to grapple with a nation-changing decision like Brexit. The EU referendum was the first time in a generation that voters got to decide on something huge and historic, to behave in a genuinely sovereign way, and the response has been near-hysteria. Politics had become so small, so narrow, such a minority pursuit, that this rude and brilliant intrusion of the public and history into everyday discourse has freaked people out.

Well, get used to it. Grow up. Brexit has brought politics to life, elevated unresolved questions of nationhood, democracy and social and class divisions to the forefront of public life, and that is a very good thing. The treatment of it as a bad thing, in fact a dangerous thing, which parliament must now dilute or kill, is an outrage and it threatens to unravel not only Brexit but many of the great, hard-won gains of the modern democratic era.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics UK


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