The woes of democracy

November 21st, 2019
by Chris

One idea from Toby Buckle’s most recent Political Philosophy podcast resonated with me in particular (it wasn’t the main thrust of the podcast, which was, as usual, excellent) . It was this: a functioning Democracy relies on the side which has not won a vote accepting that, and moving on.

I was immediately reminded of the fact that almost immediately after the Brexit referendum result, Brexiteers were calling on Remainers to come together with them and deliver Brexit (without having the slightest idea how Brexit could be delivered or what the consequences were), and have ever since then been criticising Remainers and accusing them of not being in agreement with the result of this popular vote. I was also reminded of the fact that the narrative behind Boris Johnson calling for another election is, in essence, that Parliament has frustrated Brexit and is no longer fit for purpose.

Now, bearing in mind that even on the evening of the referendum, the arch-Brexiteer, Nigel Farage, was expecting to lose, and pledging to carry on fighting for Brexit despite the expected “Remain” vote, I thought the immediate criticisms of those of us who voted “Remain” were unreasonable. In effect, his position was that “his side” would never accept a “Remain” vote and would carry on trying to reverse it – and his position as an MEP (and that of the other members of what was then the UKIP party) was to disrupt the European parliament as much as they could, which signals exactly the same refusal to accept a democratic result. I will note here that the position of the “European Research Group” of Conservative MPs who were ardently in favour of leaving the EU was fairly similar, if not quite identical. It wasn’t, however, quite the refusal to accept a democratic result which the podcast refers to, as the commitment was to further democratic action at that point.

At that point, my position, and that of a large number of other “Remain” voters was that yes, we had lost, and we therefore needed to campaign for the least damaging Brexit which could be obtained – and this was also the position of a majority of MPs – perhaps not a majority of Conservative MPs, but almost certainly a sizeable majority of Labour MPs; both parties campaigned in the 2017 election on the basis of putting Brexit into effect. Remainers, in other words, were being accused (in advance) of doing what Brexiteers had already been doing or would do themselves.

From the point of view of consensus the trouble is that at that point the narrative shifted. In the referendum campaign, much was made of the fact that we could leave the EU and still have a very favourable trade deal, perhaps still being in the Customs Union and having zero tariffs (which is essentially the deal which Norway has), and I’m sure that influenced a significant proportion of those who voted “Leave” and of the Labour MPs and at least a significant number of the Conservatives elected in 2017. However, it then became a refusal to accept “the will of the people” if someone wanted anything other than the very hardest Brexit, a “no deal” Brexit which would leave us with customs barriers and tariffs between us and our largest trading partner, or at the very least to guarantee that we wouldn’t end up in a “no deal” situation.

This was apparent when Mrs. May negotiated a deal with the EU which, at the time, I was unhappy with, but said was the best which could be expected, indeed, better than I had expected, given the negotiating positions of the two sides. There were three attempts to get Parliament to accept that deal; Labour were against it as it didn’t give an assurance of a future close trading relationship with the EU, but the thing which actually prevented that being accepted by parliament was NOT the votes of those who might have preferred to Remain to start with (and were probably more convinced of the good sense of the Remain view by this time), it was members of the Conservative ERG, the “hard Brexiteers” who voted against it and stopped it being adopted. Remember; only a “no deal” Brexit or something close to that is acceptable to them (and, I remind the reader, the referendum was not a vote for “no deal”, it was a vote for some form of withdrawing from the EU, and that included a range of much closer relationships than “no deal”).

I have, of course, written about this slide towards “no deal” previously.

Now, given that there were a diversity of opinions about what kind of Brexit was desirable in Parliament (just as there was in the country in general and the “Leave” voters in particular), one would have thought that a consensus could have been reached for a Brexit which was considerably less damaging than “no deal” – perhaps “Norway”, perhaps something a little less cosy (people talked of “Canada ++” or “Switzerland”), but definitely something well short of demolishing most of our foreign trade for the foreseeable future (about half our trade is with the EU, but in addition all our other trading relationships are under the EU’s trading agreements, and those would be lost too, at least for the time being). Yes, the ERG would have voted against this (and shouted loudly about a betrayal of democracy, which it obviously wasn’t), but there were probably a majority of Conservative and Labour MPs who could have lived with that. The trouble is, Mrs. May was too scared of her own party to propose anything closer to the EU than the deal she secured, so she didn’t negotiate one nor did she put one to parliament.

The Johnson narrative on this was that parliament had been deliberately frustrating the “will of the people” in the referendum, and needed to be replaced. Again, we see the Brexit side accusing Remainers of exactly what the Brexiteers were doing themselves…

Johnson, on the other hand, is in the pocket of the hard Brexit people. His “deal” is massively closer to “no deal” than Mrs. May’s (and could still end up there), and he backed up getting there by sacking Tory MPs from the party, among other tactics. (Maybe Mrs. May could have done the same with the ERG to good effect?). He is clearly now hoping that an election (which we don’t need, rather than a new referendum which we do) will get him a majority of either ardent Brexiteers or others who are too scared of expulsion from the party to argue with him, trading off a popularity in the polls which I find difficult to understand and the corresponding unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, following a campaign of vilification of him in the press since the say he was elected.

Now, I have encountered this trait of accusing your opponents of what you are doing yourself before they have done anything remotely like that themselves. It is, I suppose, understandable that someone might expect their opposition to use the tactics they are using (or intend to use) themselves, particularly if they have sociopathic tendencies, but accusing them of doing it before there is any evidence they actually are is symptomatic of one type of personality, the malignant narcissist.

I’ll mention here in passing a really bizarre allegation I’ve seen in comments (more than once) in response to the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to cancel Article 50 without a second referendum that this is “anti-democratic”. What part of standing for election with this as your declared policy and asking voters to vote for it could possibly be “anti-democratic”?

At this point, I need to pick up the point I started with. Brexiteers have been saying for quite some time now that if we were to cancel Article 50 and stay in the EU, it would potentially lead to violence; I have read today comments in three different threads from people suggesting this. This is strongly arguing that democracy has broken down in exactly the way Toby’s podcast alluded to. On the Remain side, I can’t see any corresponding claims that violence would attend us actually leaving (though many of us have committed to campaigning to re-join if that occurs) – but I have grave misgivings that, in the case of a no-deal hard Brexit, there would be so much misery caused, including possible food shortages and a substantial rise in prices of many things – plus the fact that as GDP would drop by 10-25%, so would tax revenues, which would make the spending promises of either Conservative or Labour laughable – that we would see violence.

And, in that event, democracy would have suffered a huge blow, from which it might not recover.

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