January 25, 2017

Our democracy must pass the Brexit test

Our democracy must pass the Brexit test

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.

5.00 avg. rating (99% score) - 17 votes
Henry Hill
Henry Hill
Henry Hill is a freelance journalist. He is assistant editor of ConservativeHome and also works as a communications officer for a Tory MP, as well as a commentator for BBC radio and television. He tweets at @hch_hill.
  • NickG

    Pretty much spot-on, though it doesn’t quite convey the magnitude of the frustration and anger those of us out in the shires have towards The Cathedral.

  • Susanna

    Silvesterthecat – yesterday (Saturday 28th), I read in my local paper that responsibility for migrant numbers coming to the UK could very well be passed onto local / regional administrations ie, local councils / business leaders / devolved parliaments etc.

    This would then fulfil my fears about TM and her government because it would deflect any responsibility for continued migrant numbers onto someone else.

    There is a ridiculous suggestion that migrants could be let in if they agree to work within a specific area of the country until their residence papers are finalised.

    what kind of nonsense is this ?

    How would this be effective at reducing inward migration and putting British people in control and putting british people first for jobs / housing, health etc ?

    The fact is that this if her way of giving control to the business / industry leaders – who have always wanted to keep the numbers high to guarantee a continued army of cheap labour.

  • sylvesterthecat

    Politicians like Theresa May want power and want to keep power. If she is trying to ‘play it cute’, we will know for certain within the next 8 – 10 weeks. If she plays us false, she and her Party will be politically ‘dead’ let alone what might happen a) on the streets or b) in Parliament.

    It somehow doesn’t look to be worth the trouble for TM to betray us when it seems she can have the credit and all the accolades associated with getting us out of the EU.

    No, she will NOT trick us simply because it isn’t worth her while to try

  • Helen Smith

    I disagree, speaking as an ex Tory for some years UKIP voter and ardent Leaver I think May is doing her best against some very powerful opponents, let’s give her our support.

  • Helen Smith

    I see UKIP as a sensible ‘common man’ party.

  • Bogbrush

    No, I think you’re very wrong here.

  • Andrew Mitchell

    Very well put, to be honest I hadn’t looked at it that way but, I totally get what your saying and I think your bang on!

  • Brigadier Zachary Zilch

    Our democracy has already failed the Brexit test. By allowing, through the small print, MPs to vote on triggering Article 50 means they are disregarding democracy no matter how they vote and the public know it. They had their chance, the HoC voted for a referendum they could of said no. They spent 9 million pounds on the official leaflet saying “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” it cannot be any clearer.

  • The_Pr1soner

    Sadly, Labour’s never going to disappear, because it’s a cult and there’s always someone willing to die for it.

    The tack leftwards by certain parties bothers me. I’m not convinced that a lot of Labour’s traditional supporters are proper ‘lefties’. There’s a yawning gap between how they see themselves and the views they actually hold on immigration, taxes etc. It’s like they can’t resolve their minds’ identity with reality.

    I grew up in a staunchly Labour part of the country (North East) and I’ve seen the damage they’ve done. I’ve always seen U.K.I.P. as comfortably right-wing, a sort of Conservative party for people who’ve been abandoned by the Conservatives; if they naff off leftwards, I’m left with nowhere to go. I WILL NOT vote for left-wing policies, no matter which party espouses them. I hope that you’re reading, Mr. Nuttall!

  • Nobby

    What a load of codswallop by another Kipper.

  • Lamia

    This is a very good article. Thank you.

    [Did you intend a different word here, in the final paragraph? “If not, they’ll have nobody but themselves to blame if turnouts slump or radicalism slumps“.]

  • Ken

    While the Left began as a movement to speak for the underdog, they, more recently, realised there was far more to be had from pursuing their own interests, using the Left as the platform to achieve that – think of Tony Blair. A recent report from the US showed that 5 of the the 6 richest counties were in Washington DC – not New York, the hub of financial innovation or Silicon Valley, the hub of technology innovation, but in the corridors of power.

    I believe that the Left will blow up spectacularly in the coming years but Britain will probably be the first to arrive at that destination.

  • Very good analogy there!

  • Susanna

    It’s now plain to see that Theresa May and the Tories are deliberately providing a pathway for a Brexit betrayal.

    Conservatives and the political elites here in Britain
    never, ever wanted to leave the EU and Cameron only agreed to a
    referendum to pull the rug out from under UKIP’s feet and shut up his
    own back-benchers – but Cameron thought it would be an easy win.

    But having
    lost the referendum – and trying desperately hard to look like they’re
    listening to the majority – Theresa May and her government are only
    concerned with how to lay this coming betrayal at the feet of other
    political parties – so that public anger is directed towards Labour /
    Libdems / SNP etc

    Well, we plebs know exactly what’s going on – Theresa May and the Tories aren’t the only ones with a cunning plan.

    We have one too – it’s called UKIP.

    And that’s who I’ll be voting for – along with millions more Brexiteers.

  • davmc

    “between the “elites” and the (to use the most precise term I can think
    of, which admittedly isn’t very precise) Progressive Left.”
    The last scene from Animal Farm comes to mind when the farm animals looked through the window and couldn’t tell the difference between the pigs and the humans.

  • Very interesting piece, Mr. Hill. The only thing I would add to it is this very curious alliance, which has been growing over the past few years, but has reached its fruition over Brexit and Trump, between the “elites” and the (to use the most precise term I can think of, which admittedly isn’t very precise) Progressive Left.

    I don’t think people generally have grasped how badly this is going to end for the Left. After all, so much of their raison d’etre is – or, should I say, was – standing up for the underdog, for the underprivileged, for those without a voice (etc.).

    Now, all of that has changed, and the Left is on the side of the rich and powerful. And the Tories and UKIP appear more than willing to make accommodations with erstwhile Labour voters, tacking Leftwards (e.g. Tories on industrial strategy, UKIP on keeping the NHS), to attract them.

    I reckon there’s a good chance of Labour being pretty well destroyed over the next years, because of this. And it will be totally, utterly justified. They do not deserve to survive – the British people deserve something better as an Opposition Party, let alone as a Government.

    My latest Blog, re the Supreme Court Judges’ decision yesterday, is written from the point of a Progressive Leftist who is celebrating it. It is, admittedly, exaggerated, but believe me, is not as far from the truth as some might think …I know a few Lefties, and am truly astonished by their contempt for ordinary people; and their increasing veneration of the rich, the powerful and – above all – the unaccountable.


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