In a series of indicative votes in the Commons, 184 MPs voted to revoke Article 50, to simply ignore the biggest democratic mandate in the country’s history. What is even more shameful is that 111 of those MPs were Labour MPs. At the recent EU elections, the Liberal Democrats ran on an aggressive ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ ticket. In effect, bollocks to democracy, to all you 17.4 million Leave voters. The Labour party, always covertly a party of Remain seems set to publicly link arms with them. Ask a Leave voter if they believe in democracy and they invariably reply unequivocally: of course, that’s why I voted leave. Ask someone who post the referendum result still thinks we should Remain the same question, the reply is often equivocal at best: yes, but it depends…etc. It is perhaps a little reassuring that few people including politicians, won’t openly declare they are opposed to democracy per se, but in practice increasing numbers of people, at the behest of the political class, are taking anti- democratic positions, not just in relation to Brexit but in relation to banning and closing down points of view they disagree with. Democracy is suddenly not the article of faith it once was, it is has instead become one of a number of competing values.
Among its new foes is also its oldest: profit; currently in the shape of global capital. Amazon naturally prefers to deal with one set of regulations and tax arrangements as opposed to twenty- seven. Coincidentally its UK Chief has predicted there will be riots on the streets if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. For their part the EU are considering moving to a ‘harmonisation’ on corporation tax across its member states. Hard on the heels of the economics comes the politics. Cameron’s and Osborne’s mantra during the referendum campaign was that there would be dire economic consequences if people voted Leave. When we did there wasn’t, but then they could hardly argue that people should vote Remain in the interests of democracy. The interests of the economy have always been put above questions of civil liberty. For two decades William Wilberforce’s bills before parliament on the abolition of slavery were voted down in the interests of trade. In 1804 it should be noted, by the Lords alone.
What it new of our times is that anti-democratic politics is growing among people who think of themselves as left wing or liberal, who claim to stand in a tradition associated with the struggle for democracy, but who clearly do not. In the UK a contemporary self-declared progressive would likely be ambivalent, hostile even to the concept of national sovereignty, lazily equating it with nationalism. In France Macron refuses to allow a referendum on EU membership because he is worried he will lose it. He sees no contradiction in calling himself a liberal whilst keeping his country locked into an empire he thinks they want to leave. Just as in the UK, he smears political opposition as racist. To do so de-legitimises opponents no matter how much support they may have, no matter how many votes. Democracy as a value, as an ethic is now not only competing with the interests of the economy, it is held up against notions of political correctness, most notably allegations of racism, much like an individual tried in the court of social media. It is the Labour Party that has most vociferously slandered Leave voters as racist and more recently as supporting the far right by voting for The Brexit Party. Some have compared us to Nazis. They want to demoralise and demonise people who support democracy but it is also how they give themselves the moral authority to ignore the mandate; the accusations are as much for themselves as for us.
Recently the refusal to accept to the referendum result migrated to the result of the EU elections. Many in the media and on the left claimed that we witnessed a ‘remain surge.’ One wonders if this trait will continue to future elections. Acceptance of electoral defeat is fundamental to democracy, or as playwright Tom Stoppard put it, it’s not the voting that counts, it’s counting the votes that matter and some in the establishment are happy to present the numbers creatively. Much in the discourse of the last three years is reminiscent of the Victorian era when extending the franchise was denied on the grounds that working people were too irresponsible, to ill-informed and impressionable to be trusted with the vote. That and the paternalism of Victorians that pitied and feared the poor in equal measure. There is something of Dickens’ self-righteous Mr Bumble in so many of our politicians who preach one thing in manifestos and then practice the opposite in office.
Democracy is important not just as a civil liberty but because of the responsibility it endows us with. How we vote affects others, it encourages us to think of society as a whole, notions of equality around race and gender followed on from this most basic equality; we are all equal before the ballot box. Although it is a private act it is also a collective act and it was won through collective action. If the referendum result is negated it will not only destroy what little trust remains in government but it will break a connection that exists between citizens cooperating together to improve their lives peacefully through the ballot box. Fewer people will vote as a result, it will induce apathy as well as anger. It was once unthinkable that a politician on the left would do such a thing as to vote for the revocation of Article 50. Indeed, the origin of the division between left and right comes from the very birth of the struggle for democracy in Europe, for during the French Revolution Robespierre and others who demanded universal suffrage sat on the left of the assembly and the Girondists who wanted to keep political power within the nobility, on the right. But now in the UK the left so called, sit where the right once did and many who are thought of, and think of themselves as on the right, are for democracy.
At heart of the confusion is the way politics is used by many as a personal brand. Many on the Remain side see the EU as a more attractive brand than Leave, which they see as old and uncool. They do not consider how or whether the institution is steadily de-democratising Europe. The left is generally more vocal about their brand, uncontrollably self-righteous at times. And for all of us social media has diminished the space between private and the public spheres. The practice of keeping a diary developed during the Reformation when people would privately examine their conscience against the demands of living a Christian life. It was an entirely personal matter. Does anyone believe that Alistair Campbell kept a diary during the Blair years for any purpose other than publication?
Those of us in support Brexit will continue to be denigrated and lied about and I expect there is worse to come. However, for the last three years the Leave electorate has remained incredibly resilient and it now has a party to vote for, if only on this issue. It may not be perfect but at this point, it alone stands for democracy. The political establishment may have most of parliament, the judiciary and much of the media on their side. It seems daunting. But we have hundreds of years of struggle to inspire us and our forefathers overcame far greater obstacles than we are facing. We owe it to them to stand our ground.