A reversal of the Brexit result would be a dramatic assertion of elite dominance, and would signal to the British people that they lack a democratic avenue for effecting change, says Henry Hill.
One of the best summaries of the reaction to Brexit on the part of some Remain supporters comes from Professor Anand Menon – not a man with whom I always agree – from The UK in a Changing Europe:
“It is hard to avoid the feeling that the sense of bereavement that ran through Remainer reactions stemmed not from its anticipated impact, but from the fact that it was not their preferred outcome. These, simply put, are not people who are used to losing. As Manchester Professor Rob Ford put it, in my second favourite Brexit quote of the year, Remainers are now simply experiencing what UKIP voters have had to put up with for years.”
That line – “not used to losing” – puts its finger precisely on the sense of outraged entitlement emanating from certain parts of the Remain coalition. It explains their dogged refusal to abandon the cause after the referendum, and illustrates how important it is that they do lose.
I wonder if I’m alone in feeling much more strongly that we ought to leave now we’ve voted to do so than I ever did about whether or not we voted to leave in the first place. I was a swing voter in the referendum, my once-ardent Europhilia washed out by the realisation that the EU seemed unlikely ever to embrace the sort of reforms I’d hoped for.
Once David Cameron had put our membership on the line and got so little, the options looked to me as either walk the walk, or validate Brussels’ dogmatism and complacency. Not necessarily an inspiring choice but not, when it came to it, a very difficult one.
Once the Leave vote was in, I found my residual concerns gradually giving way to excitement at the prospect of bringing control of so many areas of policy back to London – a sense of unfolding horizons brilliantly expressed by Andrew Marr in the New Statesman. There was also a sense of slightly giddy disbelief that something so obviously opposed by the powers that be had actually happened.
But of course, it hasn’t happened yet. And when the High Court first upheld Gina Miller’s case against the Government triggering Article 50 there was a real sense that Brexit might run aground against an unnavigable reef of sheer, elite disbelief and disapproval.
This sense of entitlement isn’t confined to the Brexit vote: it’s been very apparent in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s blindside victory in the United States, to pick just the most obvious example. If you’re a connoisseur, you should check out the Twitterati rending their shirts after Colombian voters rejected a peace deal their President had negotiated with the FARC guerrillas. Most of those objecting hadn’t had the slightest involvement with the Colombian conflict, and few had a clear idea about the terms of the ceasefire or why a bare majority of voters rejected them. But still the familiar cry went up: democracy had got it wrong. Again. Damn it, 2016.
That it is very difficult to stop some things happening once the powerful have decided on them, especially in the EU, was well-known before Brexit – see all the running jokes about Ireland voting again until they get it right. But last year marked the first time in recent history that opposition forces, albeit of rather different sorts, appear to have scored actual victories against the settled opinions of those in charge, and the prospect of the results getting overturned isn’t quite so funny.
Brexit highlighted the breadth of the gulf between the political world and much of the country, and engaged a huge number of normally indifferent or under-motivated voters. If the sole result of leaving the EU was to make our leaders and parties more responsive to that body of opinion which they’ve previously overlooked, it will have been a very good thing for our democracy.
On the other hand, a reversal of the result would be a dramatic assertion of elite dominance, and the dangers of that were well laid out by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, in a letter to the Times. It would alienate a huge number of voters and signal to them that they don’t have a reliable, democratic avenue for effecting change. That could well be the spur for the rise in this country of the more radical populism we see blossoming on the continent, but have been largely spared to date.
Brexit is about more than trade deals, or benefits, or even immigration. It is a test of whether British politics is a sport where, when everybody participates, the insiders can lose. If not, they’ll have nobody but themselves to blame if turnouts slump or radicalism rises. Nobody has much patience for rigged games.