A genuine opportunity for democratic renewal – if we can keep it
Many believed – either through arrogance or hopelessness – that this day would never come.
Article 50 Day: the day that the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally signalled to the European Union our decision to secede from that dysfunctional, anachronistic and profoundly anti-democratic political union, conceived more than a century ago and constructed in a post-war age now almost completely alien to us.
Of the many pictures which may come to represent “Brexit Day” in historical memory, the two images which struck me are the photograph of Theresa May signing the Article 50 notification letter in Downing Street last night, and the television footage of the British official (Ambassador Sir Tim Barrow) in Brussels, striding into the European Council building to deliver the note to president Donald Tusk.
Why? Because these images more than any other represent the astonishing triumph of democracy over the near-unanimous will of the political establishment.
Theresa May did not want to sign the Article 50 letter. During the referendum she campaigned, albeit half-heartedly and often nearly invisibly, for Britain to remain in the European Union before accepting the inevitable and promising to implement Brexit as she manoeuvred for the Tory leadership.
And the British civil service, foreign office and diplomatic corps, represented here by Tim Barrow, our Permanent Representative to the EU, certainly did not want to deliver the letter, so accustomed are they to thinking and operating only within the narrow tramlines of those competencies not surrendered to Brussels..
The generations of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats who currently run Britain were raised on a narrative of national decline and inevitable dependence on the Brussels political union as the only means of amplifying our fading voice in world affairs. Their formative years were spent during the Winter of Discontent and marked by one post-war national humiliation after another. The tremendous post-1970s (Thatcherite) revival has failed to disabuse them of the utterly false, poisonous notion that Britain is a small and insignificant country, no longer capable of governing herself in the manner of other independent countries such as Canada or Australia, let alone as the fifth largest economy and major cultural, commercial, diplomatic and military power that we truly are.
By huge margins, these people were deeply wedded to Britain’s inevitable future as a European Union member state, and consider Brexit a huge mistake bordering on a tragic act of national self-harm. And yet Theresa May signed the letter, Tim Barrow delivered it, Article 50 was duly triggered and the process of Britain’s secession from the European Union was put into motion.
Why is this something to be celebrated? Because at a time when there is every reason for cynicism and doubt, it shows that at a fundamental level, the British people are indeed still in charge of their own destiny.
Theresa May did not want to sign the letter and Tim Barrow did not want to deliver it, but they did so because they retain a sufficient fear of (if not respect for) the public that they dared not abuse their power by overriding the results of a public referendum. Note that there is no such reticence about subverting democracy in the diminished union we are now leaving – unfavourable referendum results in member states (relating to EU treaties or the ill-fated constitution) have consistently been treated as unfortunate but minor setbacks and then sidestepped by the Brussels machinery, its leaders safe in the knowledge that they are so insulated from democratic accountability that they will suffer no consequences for their actions.
In Britain, however, there remained just enough fear of the people for our leaders to be forced to do the right thing, against their will. That’s not to say that they will get Brexit right, not by a long stretch – right up until Referendum Day, many Brexiteers were too busy hating the EU to identify the future relationship they wanted to have with it, while bitter Remainers did much to poison public and media opinion against the kind of transitional EEA deal which would have caused the least economic disruption. But given a mandate to take Britain out of the European Union our leaders are now doing so, however clumsily and against their will. This is as it should be.
Brendan O’Neill also gets it:
What we’re witnessing in Britain today, with Theresa May triggering Article 50, is something radical: the political class is going against its own judgement under the duress of the demos. The polite, peaceful duress of the demos, it should be pointed out.
We know that 73 per cent of MPs want to stay in the EU. We know many in the House of Lords are horrified by Brexit and were keen to hold it up. We know 70 per cent of business leaders wanted Britain to remain, and that some of them launched costly legal battles to try to stymie the Brexit momentum. And yet in the end, all of them, every one, has had to roll over and give in to the masses: to the builders, nurses, teachers, mums, old blokes, unemployed people and others who effectively said to the political class: ‘You’re wrong. We should leave’. To the people surprised that such a state of affairs can exist, that the political set can be made to do something it doesn’t want to by the mass of society, including even uneducated people: what did you think democracy meant? This is what it means.
Yes, this is what democracy means. To do anything else – to override or subvert the referendum decision for Brexit – would mean the triumph of technocracy and well-meaning dictatorship over democracy.
We tend to forget, because it has not been this way within living memory for many citizens, but in a democracy the leaders are supposed to fear and respect the people and their judgment, not the other way around. As government relentlessly expanded and the bureaucratic state encroached ever more on our lives, we have unfortunately come to fear the government far more than government leaders fear the public – but not so with Brexit. Government ministers know that to defy the Brexit vote and seek to remain in the EU against the wishes of the people would visit such anarchy and destruction upon the country that they daren’t seriously even consider it (save inconsequential politicians such as Tim Farron). And so no matter how much they dislike it, today they implement our instructions.
Of course, Brexit is just one issue. In many other arenas of public life, officials have absolutely no qualms about defying public opinion and treating voters as polling units to be managed or placated rather than autonomous, thinking and engaged citizens to be feared and respected. We must take care not to merely repatriate powers from Brussels back into the arms of a power-hungry, over-centralised Westminster government that will fail to act in the interest of the UK’s diverse home nations and regions, and which carelessly surrendered its own powers to Brussels without democratic consent in the first place. Now, more than ever, we must hold our politicians and civil servants to account.
Brexit is the start of an opportunity for real democratic and constitutional reform, not an outcome in itself. Secession from the European Union makes the rejuvenation of our democracy possible, but by no means inevitable.
When queried by a stranger as to the outcome of the constitutional convention he was leaving, American founding father Benjamin Franklin famously replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it”.
Today, as Theresa May’s government (for all its many flaws) triggers Article 50 and serves notice on the European Union, we seek to reclaim our national self-determination and renew our democracy – if we can keep it. If we can rise to the occasion and collectively seize the great opportunity which now stands before us.
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May I take this opportunity to salute all of you courageous citizens of the United Kingdom who, despite all of the odds, have taken this momentous step to take back total control of your country.
If only the people of Greece had found the same courage, maybe the situation in that country would have stabilized and a glimmer of hope might have begun to shine through.
Like so many of you, I have the same trepidation and anxiety about the road that lies ahead. But it will be no more difficult than what you have had to endure and overcome in the past. Mr Churchill would be proud of you.
And the lesson has been learned, albeit in the harshest way – do not ever again hitch your carriage to a team of donkeys.
To be the masters of your own destiny and to be in total control of your means and direction of travel is always going to be far more preferable than being passengers in a bus with a poor driver on a journey to nowhere.
Good luck, my friends.
More people than you realize are rooting for your success!
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And so, with inevitability, I appear on your blog to voice my disagreement…
I agree with your description of what a democracy *should* be, but I question the extent to which I think Brexit truly represents it. How many of those “builders, nurses, teachers, mums, old blokes” actually voted for the constitutional sovereignty on which you based your support for Brexit? None of the hundreds I spoke to, while out campaigning. Everyone was talking about immigration, about money going to the EU which ought to be going elsewhere (*cough*NHS bus*cough*), and about EU “red tape” which is actually no more than an inept implementation and overly-restrictive interpretation of EU guidelines by our own government. Now that the government has come out and said that immigration will not go down, and the money we sent to the EU will not be redirected to the NHS, how many people would still vote for Brexit? Because if you believe in real democracy, there really ought to be another vote which takes the reality of the situation into account. A victory based on lies and false promises is an empty victory at best, a pyrrhic victory at worst.
Oddly enough I find myself feeling quite optimistic about the situation in which we find ourselves. I support community resilience and sustainability projects, and being forced – politically and economically – to be more self-sufficient will be better for this country, and for the world, in the long run. But in the short run, the spike in xenophobia and the erosion of protections for workers’ rights is something I will be watching keenly.
I always enjoy your contributions, and apologies I haven’t responded to more of late – new projects have significantly reduced my blogging time of late.
I would point out that the quote you take issue with here (builders, teachers, nurses) was from the Brendan O’Neill piece that I quoted, and not my own words. I did raise an eyebrow when I saw him include teachers in his list – not a profession I would have thought to be brimming with Brexiteers, at least from some of the depressing anecdotal stories I have seen in the press.
(Incidentally, I also spoke with hundreds if not thousands of people while campaigning, and sovereignty was the number one issue – as borne out by the polls. I won’t deny that people raved about “Our NHS”, as British people are wont to do, but sovereignty and self-determination was the key driver for most of the people I spoke to. And this was confirmed by multiple newspaper polls, I believe).
You and I both think that the NHS bus was stupid, but to call for a re-run of the referendum based on this and other campaign rhetoric from the official Leave campaign, which did NOT represent all or even most Brexiteers (while ignoring the lies and abuses of power on the Remain side) seems awfully one-sided. Cameron blatantly abused his office and bully pulpit, throwing the full weight of government and the civil service behind the Remain campaign. Was that fair? Should we have been given a re-run if we had lost the referendum on that basis?
What about Remainers’ widespread prior insistence that an EEA-type Brexit was impossible and deeply undesirable (the “you have to accept the rules but can’t influence them!” lie), poisoning the well against the least disruptive form of Brexit, only for many prominent Remainers now to wail that we should pursue an EEA / single market option? Were they lying before? Should we have a re-run of the referendum because of that deception?
All political campaigns, it seems to me, involve lashings of glib and unsubstantiated promises, wishful thinking at best, outright deceit at worst. Do we now start overturning general elections if manifesto promises are breached? How about in the event of government U-turns? What if an individual MP breaks a local campaign promise – should they be subject to automatic recall?
We all got the same government-funded piece of pro-EU propaganda through our doors, which said that the government would act faithfully on the outcome of the EU referendum, whichever way it went. It was one of the only honest sentences in the entire booklet. It said nothing about holding another referendum based on the terms of negotiation – that was not part of the bargain, the government’s contract with the electorate. We have had our vote, and rightly or wrongly the government must now execute our wishes. That was the deal, in black and white.
Ultimately we have to trust the people to see through the lies and deceit on both sides (a more honest and less incestuous, elitist media would help an awful lot – nearly all the people who contributed most to the debate on both sides toiled in obscurity while household name columnists and well-manicured TV talking heads strutted and preened and pretended to be experts, limiting the discussion and lowering our collective IQs in the process) because it is our only real hope. Anything else smacks of paternalism – assuming that the people are foolish sheep who (unlike us) didn’t know what they were doing, and so need to have their choices either artificially limited beforehand or overruled after-the-fact if they vote “against their own interests”.
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You make some fair points – though it is interesting that so many people spoke to you about sovereignty. I wish more people had been up for discussing it with me!
I don’t see that Remainers were deceptive to argue that an EEA-type Brexit was unlikely – in fact, I think it has always been the least likely of all possible options, one of those good compromises that leaves everyone unhappy. Why should other countries vote for our interests, possibly against their own? So, by this logic, given that we now have a confirmed ‘hard Brexit’ approach, perhaps another referendum should be in order.
Acting faithfully on the outcome of the referendum (I don’t have the text of the leaflet to hand) seems like a rather mealy-mouthed promise, especially given that the referendum itself was designed to be advisory and not binding. The government could have ‘acted faithfully’ by paying lip service to the national mood in EU negotiations, as much as by triggering Article 50. I’m not suggesting that this would have been right or even desirable, but there was nothing black and white about this deal. Admittedly, getting that leaflet through the letterbox was the one thing that made me consider abstaining, because who wants to be on the same side as Cameron? 😉
I don’t think it’s paternalistic to dispute the wisdom of a narrow interpretation of a decision that was made with incomplete information. In almost any other sphere, it would be considered sensible to reconsider a decision when new information came to light (e.g. the government’s determination on a hard Brexit, the issues of immigration and funding).
Also: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people, Jeremy.” 😉
Notionally, all referendums are ‘advisory’ in technical terms but to be properly objective about it, the ‘advisory’ status needs to be clearly and comprehensively highlighted before the vote and during the Campaign itself.
Now, in theoretical terms, it may well be (because the rules are available to view elsewhere) ‘everyone knows that Referendums are advisory’, but in practice, they don’t. It’s arguable that is because large numbers of people neglect to peruse deeper into the subject, but the fault is also that of the political classes too. Cameron’s Referendum was held on the implied promise that a Government led by him would – quote – ‘honour the result’. At the same time, a Commons briefing paper was circulated among all MPs that the Referendum result would be ‘advisory’. However, it would appear the same Commons briefing paper was not also simultaneously delivered to the electorate. Something of a missing critical detail.
This sums up the EU debate quite nicely. In context of the dismal ‘Leave’ Campaign replete with disinformation and outright lies, the longer-term pro-EU debate declines to present pertinent information to the electorate in advance of integration. Harold Wilson is known to have accepted ‘in principle’ that the Labour Party would join a future European Currency way back in 1975. It’s reasonable to say he forgot to inform the wider Labour movement at that time.
Similarly, when Ashdown was leader of the LibDems, he was suddenly ambushed over his Single Currency referendum one Sunday morning by David Frost, who asked him to explain the concept of ‘advisory’. In a fairly frantic rabbit-in-headlights reply, Ashdown used a large number of words to say nothing on the subject whatsoever.
‘Advisory’ may be a legitimate point of order, but is most legitimate when the voter is properly made aware of the matter, and well in advance of the vote itself.
Sovereignty was indeed the No 1 reason for voting Leave as Project Fear was the No 1 reason for Remain.
This wa s confirmed by Lord Ashcroft’s polling immediately after the Referendum:
The poll sample of 12,000+ was significantly higher than most poll samples.
Sam – another great blog and yes I quite agree. Yesterday was a great day for democracy but let’s not waste the opportunity now presented to us to ensure we build a democracy that ensures our political leaders can never again give away our powers without a mandate from the people.
Now would be a good time to get behind the campaign for electoral reform: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/
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For me and many others it is less about electoral reform and more about deeper, more structural constitutional reform – and we have been in the trenches advocating for it for a long time. But yes, people should certainly use this period of flux to step up their engagement as involved citizens in any way that aligns with their interest and conscience. If Brexit does nothing else, at least let us hope its legacy may be a citizenry which is more aware, more questioning of power and authority, more eager to get involved.
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Let’s hope so. We need it. Unfortunately most of my engagement gets me branded a “libtard” “snowflake” or words to that effect 😀
I think a lot of it is identifying where it is worthwhile trying to engage in discussion/debate and where it is pointless or unlikely to lead to good results. For example, I have drastically restricted my time spent talking politics on Facebook because the vast majority of people use it exclusively as an echo chamber, cheering on their own side with likes and shares, while bashing the other side without really bothering to stop, read and think. I’m a lot more selective about the groups where I engage these days, and have given up promoting my blog on Facebook entirely, besides on its own dedicated page. I just don’t need the drama of being told I’m Hitler 100 times a day, as I was during the referendum and general election.
Rather than taking on the world I would now much rather have one quality face-to-face interaction with someone of opposing views at a protest, or a considered conversation on Twitter that ends amicably with both of us having learned something, than plunge in to battle a hundred times on Facebook, or on the comments section of websites that are teeming with trolls. Doesn’t always work, but I would say I have been getting a better return on investment on my political engagement this year as a result of having made those changes.
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