This brilliant revolt
Five years on, the promise of Brexit still burns bright.
It was five years ago today. Millions of Brits marched to the polling stations to answer a simple question: should we stay in the European Union or should we leave it? Everyone expected the answer to be ‘Let’s stay’. Surely the British people would not be so reckless as to tear their nation from the finest, fairest, most peace-loving global institution of the postwar era, which is how Remainers spoke of the EU. Yet as the world now knows, and as history must record, things didn’t go to plan. In defiance of virtually the entire elite, and in the face of a relentless, well-oiled campaign of fear that said leaving the EU would propel the UK into a grim future of food shortages, medicine scarcity and probably fascism to boot, the electorate said: ‘You know what? Let’s leave.’
We all know what happened next. There was David Dimbleby’s ashen face as he solemnly announced the epoch-shattering decision of the British people. Politicians welled up. The commentariat were flummoxed. Then came the demand for a second referendum to correct the destructive idiocy of the low-education masses. There were marches, angry marches, in which thousands of middle-class people traipsed to Westminster under banners calling for a ‘People’s Vote’, which was positively Orwellian given the entire aim of these gatherings of irate influencers was to destroy a people’s vote. There was the Remainer Parliament, in which MPs shamelessly devoted themselves to thwarting their constituents’ wishes. There was Theresa May’s compromises, and the EU’s vindictiveness, and all the rest of it. On and on it went, the noisiest hissy fit of modern times, a political meltdown of unprecedented proportions.
To those of us who voted for Brexit – and who would do so again and again – the response of the establishment was proof of our rightness. Their bitter rage against the supposedly ill-informed, xenophobic masses confirmed our suspicion that they do not take us seriously as citizens. The EU’s Machiavellian machinations – its cynical exploitation of Irish concerns to try to weaken Brexit, its treatment of Britain as an uppity colony daring to question the rights of empire – proved the virtue of our ballot-box revolt against this distant, neoliberal oligarchy. And Labour and the broader left’s decision to side with the EU against the British people, to don their blue face-paint and wave their plastic flags as they demanded that the ignorant throng be made to vote again, attested to millions of people’s belief that those who claim to speak for the working classes actually harbour a seething contempt for the working classes.
This was the beauty of the fallout from our vote: their fury fortified our commitment to the progressive, democratic project of leaving the EU. In the face of the most unhinged display of establishment anger any of us can remember, the electorate stood by its convictions and restated its beliefs every single time polling booths were opened. In the 2017 General Election, when more than 80 per cent of us voted for parties that were then promising to respect the referendum result (the Tories and Labour). In the 2019 Euro elections, when the Brexit Party came top. And of course in the 2019 General Election, when the party that promised to ‘Get Brexit Done’ (the Tories) won an historic victory, while the party that stabbed its working-class voters in the back and aligned itself with the neoliberal cry for a second vote (Labour) received its worst beating since the 1930s. The steadfastness of the British people’s commitment to Leave, and to democracy, has been utterly inspiring.
Here’s the curious thing about the past five years. Time and again, the people made plain their belief that Brexit would be a positive step for the United Kingdom to take, and yet the narrative around Brexit, the political and media rendering of it, was entirely negative. There was a staggering disconnect between the pro-Brexit confidence of vast swathes of the electorate and the daily hysterical depiction of Brexit as an unmitigated disaster, as a demagogic nightmare, as Nazism with a new face. You couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of the chasm that now separates the outlook of ordinary people and the outlook of the political class. Now, though, on the fifth anniversary of this brilliant revolt, it is surely time to wrest the narrative back from the anti-democratic doom-mongers who have more than had their say and to make one, simple point: Brexit is the best thing to happen to British and European politics in the postwar era.
No more screwing up our faces in frustration when the elites say Brexit is a nightmare. No more apologetic statements like, ‘It will be okay, I promise’. No more treatment of Brexit as a technical task we can ‘get done’ if we put our minds to it – I’m looking at you, Boris and Co. No, Brexit must finally be put into its rightful historic context. This revolt against both Brussels and Westminster, this peaceful uprising against the political, cultural and business elites who all warned us not to break away from technocracy, is up there with the Leveller struggle for the right of men to vote, and the Chartist fight for a working-class voice in politics, and the St Peter’s Field march for the enfranchisement of working people, and the Suffragette battle for women’s right to vote. In common with those people-won leaps forward for the democratic imagination, the Brexit revolt was an assertion of the rights of citizens to play a greater role in determining the fate of the nation and the fate of their own lives.
It wasn’t a racist vote. It wasn’t a vote against foreigners. It wasn’t a desperate cry of the ‘left behind’, pleading with middle-class Londoners to listen for a change. It was a vote to enlarge the democratic life of the nation. It was a vote to wrest control away from unelected bureaucrats and return it to those over whom we the people have a more direct form of democratic control. It was entirely of a piece with the cry of John Lilburne, the great Leveller of the English Civil War: ‘Unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish and tyrannical it is, for any man whatsoever – spiritual or temporal, clergyman or layman – to appropriate and assume unto himself a power, authority and jurisdiction to rule, govern or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent.’ That’s what we said, us Brexiteers, in our own way. You cannot make our laws or control our destinies without our consent – that was the meaning behind ‘Take back control’.
This is why the EU referendum continues to cast a shadow over every facet of politics in the UK. This is why we still define ourselves by the tags Leave and Remain. This is why where you stood in that 2016 referendum will one day be spoken of in the same way that people ask where you would have stood in the Battle of Marston Moor, the 1644 clash between parliamentarians and royalists. Because this wasn’t just a vote on a technical matter. It was a wholesale reordering of British political life. It was ordinary people demanding the reorganisation of political debate around issues of sovereignty, democracy and power. It was the people injecting the aloof, sclerotic realm of politics with the serious question of authority and where it derives from. We shouldn’t balk at the division of politics along the lines of Leave / Remain, along the lines of where you stand on nationhood, borders, sovereignty and power. We shouldn’t write these camps off as ‘identities’, as ‘tribes’. We should welcome the historic clarity that the mercifully bloodless civil war between the people and the elites over the past five years has introduced into public life. I’ll be a Leaver forever.
Was Brexit perfectly implemented? Of course not. Look at the mess of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Did the introduction of lockdown just weeks after we celebrated our official leaving of the European Union on 31 January 2020 suggest that ‘control’ – of politics, our lives, our futures – remains elusive? Undoubtedly. Is Brexit an unfinished revolt? For sure. We are still ruled by political elites hostile to the populist spirit and drawn, inexorably, to the dead hand of technocratic governance. And yet for all of that, Brexit still remains a great and stirring achievement. To get overly down about the rocky road of politics post-Brexit would be to risk aligning ourselves with the anti-democratic naysayers who accuse the people of having given rise to a dangerous new era. It is the magnificent promise of Brexit we must highlight, and build upon, if we are to ensure that the centuries-long struggle for a real culture of people power will eventually come good.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
Picture by: Getty.
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