As The Sun Goes Down On Democracy

Over a beer with my brother last weekend he told me that, unlike some of his chums, he doesn’t put political stuff on facebook, as all it would do is alienate the half of his friends that don’t agree with him.  Sadly, that’s probably true for all of us.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  We all want pretty much the same things: to be happy, to have the freedom to do what we want, not to have our ability to do this infringed upon by others, etc.

One might have thought we could get our heads together as we might if working together as part of a pub quiz team.  The reality is that political stuff is more complex.  It is more difficult to present a convincing argument as to which is the best way forward.  This doesn’t stop us from thinking we have the answer though.  We are all too inclined to huddle in groups of people who think like we do, or shout at each other across a sea of shifting opinion, clinging gamely to the loosely tied planks that make up the raft of our political convictions.

Before Brexit, pressing political issues came and went.  Talking heads appeared briefly to tell us what they thought on a matter and then away they went.  Laws and policies changed and, for better or worse, were enforced, ignored or repealed.  Brexit has been different.  As it has lingered in the cross hairs of our attention we, and the politicians that represent us, have been given the opportunity to really get to grips with the issues: explore the various options and possibilities and come to a much clearer understanding of the best way forward.  An opportunity that sadly has not been taken.

I am an apparently rare beast.  I care about Brexit but I was not and am not convinced that either Leave or Remain offer an obviously better way forward.  I don’t have any sympathy with the stereotypical Leaver who wants to send Johnny foreigner home and rebuild the Britain of Albion and Empire.  The arc of history described by ever advancing information technology points toward a destination in which national barriers and the divided interests they protect will be dissolved as we come together to cooperate more effectively for the purposes of trade and the management of our shared environment.  Similarly, I don’t have much sympathy with the naïve ‘better together’ beliefs of many Remainers either.  Yes, we are better cooperating, but how we do this is very important.  Attempting to enforce cooperation by tying nations together before they are politically, economically and culturally in step increases the risk of conflict, just as surely as if we were participants in a three-legged race being dragged back and forward by straps that cut into our ankles.

Only two things matter: the facts and our values. Here are what I believe to be the most important facts.

In 1975 the British electorate voted 67:33 in favour of remaining part of the Common Market.  Since then the European Union has sought ever greater political union.  While Britain has gone along with this in many ways, it has sought to retain greater independence than others; notably by deciding not to abandon the pound in favour of the euro, so enabling it to retain greater control over its economic policy.

Dissatisfaction with the political direction of travel in the EU led many opponents of Britain’s EU membership to call for another referendum.  In 1995 James Goldsmith formed the Referendum Party to promote this cause.  In 2007 The Liberal Democrat Party also started calling for a referendum on continued EU membership.  Their commitment to an in/our referendum was restated in their 2010 and 2015 manifestos.  In the wake of the Referendum Party, support for UKIP gradually increased to the point where it was perceived to be significantly influencing the outcomes of constituency (and therefore national) elections.  In 2013 David Cameron made a commitment to hold such a referendum.

In 2015 all but SNP MPs voted in favour of an in/out referendum.  While, from a legal perspective, the Referendum Bill made the outcome advisory rather than legally binding, it was publicly declared that parliament would do the will of the people.  I do not recall being told at the time by any politician or commentator that the result would not necessarily be binding. Given that 80% of MPs voted to remain, it is apparent that the failure to point this out was not a consequence of Leavers hedging their bets should they have lost.

After an exceptionally high voter turnout, in June 2016 Britain voted 52:48 in favour of leaving the EU.  Given the wildly emotional response of ardent Remainer MPs such as Anna Soubry on the morning after, and the absence of any formal wriggling from MPs on the matter ever since, parliament has not explicitly sought to use this technicality to substantiate a desire to avoid abiding by the outcome.  MPs were given an opportunity to reject the outcome when they voted on whether to serve the Article 50 notice of intent to leave.  80% of Labour MPs voted with the government in favour.  Kenneth Clark was the sole Conservative who voted with the 20% of Labour MPs, the SNP, 7 Lib Dems and 9 others.

Before the referendum I do not recall any mention of a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit.  While the precise nature of what would happen in the event of a Leave outcome was never clear, the inference of the campaign slogans was.  ‘Better together’ implied we should remain bound to the EU, while ‘Take back control’ implied that we should be in control of our political and economic decision-making, not the EU.  In the words of the popular press, the next step was to negotiate the ‘divorce bill’ – i.e. the terms of departure.  Divorce seemed to an apt metaphor since, like a disgruntled spouse, Britain had decided it was not ‘better together’ and so had decided to ‘take back control’.  Just as being married and divorced are mutually exclusive states, the introduction of the terms hard and soft to describe Brexit seemed confusing.  Perhaps a ‘hard’ divorce might involve much rancour and dispute, while a ‘soft’ one might be more along the lines of Chris Martin and Gwynneth Paltrow’s ‘conscious uncoupling’.  Either way, divorce is divorce, and once complete, other than dealing with obligations concerning children and property, neither party is subject to any direct, ongoing obligation to the other.  They choose of their own freewill whether to have each other over for dinner and help each other out in times of need, send abusive messages or pretend the other no longer exists.  Divorce is never so ‘soft’ that one party remains bound to observe the rules the other imposed when they were still married.

This subdivision of Brexit into soft and hard was not a Leaver initiative.  It appears to be a device by which Remainers have sought to split the 52% so as to invoke an effective majority by combining ‘soft’ Leavers with Remainers.  While non-specific, the key ingredient of a ‘soft’ Brexit appears to be remaining in the Customs Union so as to have unfettered access to the Common Market.  Given that this would prevent Britain from entering into the free trade deals and independent legislation that were key features of the Leave campaign and of ‘taking back control’, a soft Brexit is as much Leaving as not wearing one’s wedding ring amounts to being divorced.  Yet this is the definition of Brexit the Labour Party prefers.  It is on this basis that Labour MPs say they will negotiate a ‘better’ deal with the EU.  ‘Better’ presumably because, in their view, Remaining is better than Leaving.  Having negotiated this deal they will put it to the country in a referendum that will effectively present the following choice to the people: do you want (A) to remain in the EU as a fully paid up member, or (B) just remain bound by EU legislation as a ‘county member’?  In this referendum, having negotiated this ‘better deal’ they will campaign for you to reject it.

Kier Starmer was asked by both ITV and BBC during their breakfast TV programmes how he would be able to negotiate the better deal the Labour Party are promising should they win the election.  His response was that he knew all the folks at the EU very well having worked with them over the last three years.  The implication behind the question was that a better deal would be a harder to negotiate.  Neither the ITV or BBC interviewers challenged what was ‘better’ about this deal.  My understanding is it will ‘better’ because it will protect workers’ rights and trade relationships by leaving things as they are; i.e. by accepting and enforcing the regulations of the EU; i.e. by not ‘taking back control.  Even the ineptest (or complete absence of a) negotiator could achieve this outcome.

Labour may believe that the Tories will dilute workers’ rights, but that is not a reason to object to the deal Boris has reached.  The deal simply allows Britain the freedom to do what it thinks is in its best interests.  Should the Labour Party so desire it can campaign for even ‘better’ workers’ rights, and under the terms of the Boris deal would be free to put them in place.  All the ‘better’ deal Sir Kier advocates would do is tie the hands of the British government so prevent it from meeting any future democratic preferences of the British electorate.

The Liberal Democrats, having been the first major party to call for a referendum, only to call for another one after the first one didn’t turn out as they hoped, are now effectively saying ‘to hell with referenda, leaving is madness and so we are going to rescind Article 50’. Lib Dem Sir Ed Davey has described Liberal Democrat policy as ‘clear and consistent’.  

The debacle of the last three years since the referendum result has had us witness Remain MPs telling us that ‘now the British public knows what Leaving entails many will have changed their minds’ and ‘no deal has to be taken off the table before any further negotiations can proceed’.  Away from the imaginary world these MPs seem to live in, the British public do not know what leaving will be like because we haven’t done it.  They know what not leaving when we voted to leave is like.  It’s purgatory.  Businesses can’t plan for the future, and so our economy is hobbled.  Any member of the public who has ever negotiated anything will also know that you can’t negotiate successfully if the other party knows you cannot walk away.  When you want to buy a house or car, hire an employee or get a job, while the possibility of not doing so may be a source of frustration and have bad consequences, it is unavoidable in the real world.  If parties can’t reach agreement, they must be able to walk away.  If not, the party least in need will exploit this to their own advantage.

Some Remainers claim the promise of cash for the NHS printed on the Leave bus was a lie that undermined the outcome of the referendum.  It was certainly misleading, but so were the claims that Brexit would inevitably be a disastrous.  How influential it was in swinging the campaign though is a moot point.  I only ever saw the slogan on the side of the bus when it was featured on the TV news.  Each time it was either described as ‘misleading’ by a journalist - because most of the money supposedly ‘sent’ ‘comes back’ in the form of a rebate - or a ‘lie’ by a Remainer.  Controversial?  Yes.  Headline grabbing?  Yes.  Persuasive?

The Conservative Party has not had my vote for thirty years or more.  I am no Brexiteer, but I am a democrat.  For all Boris’s shortcomings, he has succeeded in negotiating a deal that is broadly in line with what Leavers voted for and which the EU said it would not negotiate.  It is one that provides a practical alternative to the Irish backstop that would most likely have effectively prevented anything but the softest of soft (i.e. non-) Brexits.  There is little doubt that the possibility Britain might leave without a deal, and the disruption this would cause, was material in his ability to get the EU to open the deal that it had repeatedly said was closed.

When one looks back over the past few years, it is apparent that MPs have failed to honour the outcome of the referendum.  Rather than honestly state they should not have voted for a referendum or for the Article 50 notice to be served, Remain MPs have instead laid a succession of barriers that their erstwhile political opponents in their 80% majority have not been motivated to remove.  Without need for a formal conspiracy it has been convenient for them to drag their feet in the hope that someone else will get the blame and eventually someone will call the whole thing off.

It is this more than anything that incurs my ire.  My values are such that I think we should prize honesty and democracy above all other considerations.  Those MPs who now wish to ignore the referendum result say we have a parliamentary democracy.  Some say 'dictator' Boris, backed by his wicked advisor Dominic Cummins – who is so evil that he thinks our political system (reliant on unqualified MPs with short-term, personal and ideological agendas rather than experts) is not fit for purpose - has been trying to undermine our treasured parliamentary democracy.  This parliamentary democracy voted of its own freewill to give the people the say in a simple IN/OUT referendum and said they would abide by the decision.  This being the case, the continuing argument of whether leaving is a good idea or not is irrelevant.  I am of the opinion that decisions such as this, which involve constitutional change and have far-reaching implications, should not be decided by a simple majority in referenda.  Because the public are not the best informed and public opinion fluctuates, I would have thought a 60:40 majority would be a more sensible basis for change.  But my opinion on this is also irrelevant, because that’s not what parliament decided.

The events of the past three years have further diminished trust in and respect for MPs and the news media that scrutinizes them on our behalves.  Should the outcome of the forthcoming election, which will effectively pass judgement on the activities of MPs over the last three years, be that Britain does not leave the EU, or ‘softly’ leaves so as to remain in the room but not at the table, we might as well openly declare that democracy is dead.  I say this not as a Leaver – I did not vote for either side and am not convinced that one way or the other is necessarily better – but as someone who believes that, while imperfect, democracy is important.  To make it work better we need greater openness, honesty and education.  We need to be less susceptible to the whims of power-driven politicians and voters who assert their largely ignorant views as if they were experts.  The realities of the real world in which Brexit plays out are infinitely complex.  The fields of politics and economics, which are prominent in this arena, are built upon the complex interactions between psychology and deeper physical science.  Few politicians, voters or even specialist experts have a firm and full grasp on these matters, which is why economic forecasts tend to be as reliable as long-range weather forecasts and why, sometimes, we just have to bend to the wisdom of the crowd.

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