‘We respect the referendum result, but…’
Cross-party plots to betray Brexit show the big divide is no longer left vs right.
Former Tory foreign secretary William Hague reports that, ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union, political and business leaders worldwide have asked him how the government would ‘get round’ the referendum result and manage to remain in the EU. Remainer Lord Hague says he assured them that ‘this really is a democracy’ and that the government would respect the result. Indeed, he wrote in the Telegraph, ‘In the recent General Election, both main parties were clear that they were committed to the referendum outcome. Globally, the message has now got through.’
Well, up to a point, Lord Hague. The continuing battle over Brexit raises the question of how far Britain ‘really is a democracy’.
We may not have fixed elections and state repression as in, say, Venezuela or Turkey. But we do have a political elite plotting to betray the popular vote for Brexit – which, as even Lord Hague concedes, was ‘higher than the number of votes cast for any government in our history’. This looks more like a demock-racy, where our rulers pay lip service to democratic politics in principle while trying to undermine and sideline them in practice.
It is true that, at the June General Election, more than 80 per cent of votes cast were for parties formally committed to ‘respecting’ the vote to leave. Yet, with every week that passes, it becomes clearer that no major UK political party really believes in Brexit.
If ‘the message has now got through’, that message looks more and more like ‘We respect the referendum result, but…’. And those buts put in the way of Brexit are getting bigger. There is far more than future trade deals on the line in this struggle. The future of democracy in the UK and Europe is at stake.
Remember: every party represented in the UK parliament – with the sole, small exception of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – is led by politicians who campaigned to Remain in the June 2016 EU referendum. All of them. And despite their formal commitment to respect the result, both major parliamentary parties are now divided between those who want to undermine or even overthrow the Leave vote, and those who accept the need to implement it but hope to do so in a half-hearted, half-cocked way. Outside this elitist divide there are a few committed Leave-supporting democrats on both sides of parliament.
The issue of democracy and Brexit cuts across and beyond traditional party lines. Some of us have long argued that the old political language of left and right is largely redundant these days. Nothing illustrates that more starkly than the all-party attempts to undermine democracy by selling out or heading off Brexit.
Take the Tories, supposedly the party of ‘hard’ Brexit. Prime minister Theresa May is a Remainer at heart. Her chancellor, Philip Hammond, has been dubbed a ‘Remainiac’ by Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun. Hammond has announced plans for a three-year ‘standstill’ transition post-Brexit in 2019, during which the UK would effectively remain subject to EU law. His clear hope is that this standstill can be made permanent. As one delighted former top Blairite aide and arch-Remainer said of Hammond’s proposed ‘transitional’ period, ‘maybe that period will become indefinite’.
The Tories’ ‘Brexit, but…’ camp was well-represented by Remainer Lord Hague who, while insisting he accepted the vote to leave, also praised Hammond’s plan to suspend it. Recycling the failed Project Fear propaganda from the referendum campaign, Hague warned that without such a ‘standstill’ transition, Brexit could become ‘the greatest economic, diplomatic and constitutional muddle in the modern history of the UK, with unknowable consequences’. So the Tory establishment wants to ‘respect’ the Leave vote in the same way that one might respect the dead, while making plans to Remain by another name in the here and now.
Remainer Tory prime minister May and her Brexit ministers still insist that the UK is heading out of the EU in less than two years’ time. But there is little sign of the Conservatives’ lame-duck leader having the bottle for a fight to the finish. The Tories clearly cannot be trusted to stand up for Brexit and democracy.
What of the opposition? Nobody could accuse Labour of being the party of Brexit. The last time it backed leaving the European Community (forerunner of the EU) was at the 1983 General Election. After abandoning that policy, successive Labour leaders became closer and closer to the EU, as they put their faith in Euro-bureaucrats and judges rather than the British working classes.
Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, a long-term Eurosceptic, following the lead of his anti-EU hero, the late Tony Benn. Yet when it mattered, in the referendum, Corbyn put his lifelong principle on the shelf and backed the establishment’s Remain campaign.
The Labour manifesto for the 2017 election made vague noises about respecting the referendum result, while maintaining the ‘benefits of the Single Market’. That all-things-to-all-men-and-women attitude has now resulted in leading Labour MPs making contradictory noises about what the party would do. If Labour has a policy at all, it looks like an even more confused version of ‘respecting Brexit, but…’.
Labour shadow minister Barry Gardiner set the cat among the pigeons last week with a Guardian article arguing that Brexit must mean leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union because ‘the 52 per cent who voted to leave the EU would consider it a con if Britain was out of Europe but still subservient to its laws and institutions’. This provoked the fury of Remainer Labour MPs, who make up the majority of the parliamentary party despite most of them representing areas that voted Leave.
No sooner were the words ‘leave the Single Market’ out of Gardiner’s mouth than Labour’s ‘Blairite’ shadow Brexit minister, Sir Keir Starmer, and left-wing shadow chancellor John McDonnell united to shout down their shadow cabinet colleague. Both said that ‘no options should be taken off the table’ to ensure that Britain retained access to the Single Market and Customs Union. Labour’s supposedly moderate and radical leaders both left the door open to continued membership of the Single Market – which would mean accepting continued subjugation to anti-democratic EU rules.
Shadow chancellor McDonnell – Labour leader Corbyn’s top ally – even insisted that ‘the structures, whether we are in or out, are a secondary matter’. And there some of us were imagining that ‘whether we are in or out’ of the EU’s institutional grip was the entire issue at stake in the Remain-vs-Leave referendum!
Encouraged by all this top-level equivocation, London mayor Sadiq Khan then spelt out what many leading Labourites believe – that the party should commit to stopping Brexit altogether. Of course, Khan told the Guardian, they could not simply tear up the referendum result ‘because the public would say, not unreasonably, “Hold on a sec, we voted to leave and you’re now sticking two fingers up at us”’. Generous of him to say so. But Khan suggested Labour could ‘trump the referendum result’ at the next General Election, by ‘having a manifesto offer saying, we would not leave the EU, or we would have a second referendum’. Khan also told Euro-ambassadors that he hoped the EU flag flying outside the London mayor’s office ‘would stay there forever’.
Thus under the party’s rising stars such as Sadiq Khan, Labour is on course to challenge Vince Cable’s illiberal, anti-democratic Liberal Democrats for the title of the UK Remain Party.
Some left-wing Leave supporters still put their trust in Corbyn to deliver a definite Brexit, pointing out that the Labour leader is now making the right noises. This, of course, requires us to leave aside the rule that we should judge politicians on what they do, not what they say about themselves, and forget that he backed Remain in the actual referendum.
But even if we were to accept that Corbyn had reverted to his Bennite principles on leaving the EU, who seriously believes that he could take the Labour Party with him? Whatever the upsurge in Corbyn’s popularity might represent, it is not a new wave of support for Brexit. Indeed, most of Corbyn’s most enthusiastic fans – from the ‘radical’ Momentum lobby to the metropolitan middle classes and students – are ardent Remainers. The mass of Leave-leaning working-class Labour voters are the ones with least influence on the party’s new trajectory.
In sum, whichever party we look at, the old divides between left and right mean little or nothing on the big issue of our age – the battle for Brexit and democracy.
The divide that really matters today is not between the empty shells of the old parties, but between the people and the political elites that have long used the unaccountable institutions of the EU to undermine and deny democracy. They want to keep separate the two elements of democracy as originally conceived in Ancient Athens: demos, the people, and kratos – power.
It will require a realignment of politics to stand up to those in all parties plotting the betrayal of Brexit and fight effectively for democracy today. We might start by ripping up old assumptions about who’s on which side. That may mean some of us who come from the left ending up with strange-looking bedfellows, such as the right-wing traditional Tory and eloquent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg. There are far worse alternatives than that – such as leaving the future in the hands of ‘leftist’ Remainers who look down on the masses as too ignorant and gullible to know what’s good for them.
Showing the world that the UK ‘really is a democracy’ cannot mean ending up with Remain by another name. It must mean Brexit – with no buts.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
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