What’s so ‘hard’ to grasp about democracy?
Soft Brexit sounds like a code for no real Brexit at all.
The post-referendum debate might appear to have solidified into a battle between the parliamentary advocates of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Brexit. But this is largely another phoney war over Europe. In reality, neither side represents the democratic Brexit for which 17.4million people voted four months ago.
Soft Brexit sounds increasingly like a code for no real Brexit at all. It is the Remainers’ attempt effectively to re-run the referendum, and get a different result, preferably without actually having to ask the electorate.
Ours is an age in which everyone in politics feels obliged to pay lip service to the principle of democracy. So they will say yes, of course, the referendum result must be respected. But, the Remainers insist, nobody was asked to vote specifically for Hard Brexit, and leaving the Single Market, so that must not happen, no matter how many concessions Britain has to make to prevent it.
They want to ‘respect’ the referendum result in principle by reversing it in practice, ensuring the UK remains within the EU system in reality even if – perish the thought – it might leave on paper. As a result, some of them now endorse the disingenuous Soft Brexit option, under which Britain will remain in the Single Market, enjoying the free movement of goods, capital and labour. The Remainers know, of course, that the EU elite does not want that option even to be on the negotiating table; as European Council president Donald Tusk said this week, the EU sees it as Hard Brexit or no Brexit at all. Thus they believe that insisting on a Soft Brexit would mean default Remain by another name.
This motley parliamentary alliance, stretching from former failed opposition leaders Ed Miliband (Labour) and Nick Clegg (Lib Dems) to Tories like Baroness Patience Wheatcroft, dreams of a second EU referendum, in which it might finally manage to browbeat us supposedly brain-dead voters into doing what we are told. In truth, these politicians know their best hope is a parliamentary conspiracy against the express wishes of the majority of the electorate.
Typically for our times, leading Remainers seek to deny democracy in the name of… democracy. They insist that ours is a parliamentary democracy in which parliament must be sovereign and have the final say. Interestingly, this never seemed to be an issue for them through the decades when parliamentary democracy has been trampled on via the EU, by both British governments and Brussels bureaucrats. They only appear to get excited about parliamentary sovereignty when it comes to defending it against the people, as reflected in the referendum result. (They also appear to have forgotten that parliament voted overwhelmingly to hold the referendum in the first place.)
The fact that the unelected, unaccountable House of Lords is a hotbed of the Soft Brexit plot sums up what these people really think of democracy; the Lords, as Baroness Wheatcroft boasts, is best placed to lead a ‘rebellion’ over Brexit because peers like her have ‘no constituents to fear’. Well, quite. Fear and loathing of the electorate is what unites them.
What about the Hard Brexit allegedly being pursued by the Tory government – a term coined by Remainers to depict the Leave camp as extreme? Prime minister Theresa May and her team are accused of rushing headlong towards a full-blooded Brexit at all costs. Hardly. All the prime minister has said is that she intends to trigger Article 50 and begin the lengthy withdrawal process next spring – a full nine months after the referendum. In the meantime, it will all be about private talks and planning.
This secretive foot-dragging should ring alarm bells, especially when we recall that the two most powerful people in the government – May and the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond – were, and remain, upfront Remainers, while the third – foreign secretary Boris Johnson – is a long-term Remainer who decided to pose as a leader of Leave for the referendum campaign.
Most importantly, like the advocates of Soft Brexit, the government is focusing on the UK’s economic arrangements with the EU as if that was the only issue. This is a continuation of the referendum campaign, when the Remain camp’s ‘Project Fear’ sought to focus on the predicted dire economic consequences of leaving, pushing a revamped version of Mrs Thatcher’s old friend TINA – There Is No Alternative – and instructing voters just to lie back and think of the Single Market.
The pathetic official Leave campaign often pursued a similarly narrow economic agenda, with its claims about how the NHS would be rolling in extra cash if we quit. The consequence was to distract attention from the bigger political issues of popular sovereignty and democracy – issues which, polls suggest, were often to the forefront of Leave voters’ minds.
Even the supposed Hard Brexiteers are still playing a similar game – focusing on the technical economic implications of future arrangements with the EU for the pound, the City, and labour markets, and discussing how much the UK might need to contribute to EU funds in order to obtain concessions. The underlying message, as it was during the campaign, is that what the financial markets think is ultimately more important than what UK voters think.
What is more, as pointed out before on spiked, the May government is insisting that it will monopolise meaningful discussion of Brexit, behind closed doors. This can only further dissipate and dilute the democratic impulse of those who took a remarkable stand against the combined forces of the political elite in June and demanded more control over our society. The majority who voted Leave are being ‘left behind’ again.
All of the wrangling over hard and soft versions of Brexit is a diversion. What is so hard to understand about a popular vote to leave the EU? What is so hard to grasp about the real meaning of democracy, which owes its origins to the Ancient Greek words for the people and power or control? As they have done for centuries, the elites are now seeking to deny democracy in practice by redefining what it means.
The long-term economic effects of Brexit remain to be seen. There will certainly be a lot of volatility. There are those who insist it is the Single Market or bust for Britain, while others such as the ‘Leave Means Leave’ campaign argue that ‘the Single Market is the problem, not the solution’.
But while the future economic consequences remain uncertain, the immediate damaging impact on democracy of seeking to ignore, overturn or undermine the referendum vote could hardly be clearer. The future of democratic politics in the UK is now on the line – ultimately a far bigger issue than any economic wheeler-dealing with the EU bureaucracy.
The democracy issue, highlighted by Brexit, cuts across the old political lines of left and right, and has created some odd new alliances. On one hand it puts Labour and Tory anti-democrats on the same side. On the other it can leave an old libertarian Marxist like me on the same side as Wetherspoons pub-chain boss Tim Martin.
Interviewed last week by the usual BBC pro-Remain doom-mongers, Martin was asked about the biggest thing for his business about Brexit – was it the plummeting pound, potential loss of foreign workers, or what? Martin replied that the most important thing about the Brexit vote was democracy, since everything else we could buy from somebody else. Buy that man a pint.
You cannot put a price on the importance of a living, real democracy as demonstrated on 23 June. You can, however, sell it down the river, whether in a hard or soft market.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. He is speaking at the debate ‘After the referendum: Britain divided?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Saturday 22 October. Buy tickets here.
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