Imagine if after the 1999 referendum when a majority of Australians voted against a republic the government decided that it would introduce one anyway.
That mutatis mutandis is what’s happening in Britain with Brexit.
In 2016 more than 17 million Britons voted to leave the European Union, the largest number ever to vote for anything in the United Kingdom. Since then, by a combination of scaremongering, pusillanimity, deceit and parliamentary chicanery, politicians and bureaucrats who want to stay in the EU – the whole British ‘establishment’ really, riddled with anti-nationalist globalmaniac ‘anywheres’ as opposed to patriotic ‘somewheres’ – have done their best to thwart the referendum result. Within a few weeks, perhaps even less, we’ll know whether they have succeeded.
The Brexit shambles shows above all just what democracy is up against in the contemporary world. In dictatorships like Venezuela and Cuba you don’t expect the democratic will to be even heard let alone implemented. But the United Kingdom is the world’s oldest democracy, the ‘mother of parliaments’. If the democratic voice is not acted on there, what hope is there for ordinary people in countries with a less venerable democratic tradition to have a say in how their lives are run, especially at a time like this when political ‘elites’ are trying to stifle ‘populism’?
Brexit is another demonstration that the governing class in Britain as in the rest of the Western world thinks on different lines from the people it governs. It acts as though it were an oligarchy, a ruling caste with its own priorities and with little in common with voters except when it has to face the inconvenience of elections, when the sky’s the limit to what it will promise for the sake of staying in power, with next to no intention of keeping its promises. And what do we voters do when that happens? We’re cynical too. We don’t expect politicians to be true to their word. We grumble a bit, then we shrug our shoulders and leave them to it.
But whether this will happen if Brexit is blocked is another question. Brexit received the support it did because it’s a much bigger issue than those of everyday politics. Seventeen million people voted to take back control of their national future. Why, they reasoned, should a clutch of European judges of dubious impartiality, products of a tradition in which the judiciary is not as distant from politics as it ought to be, have the final say on British law? Why should unelected European commissars, answerable only to their own ambition, have the power to over-ride and countermand the British parliament? The questioning is understandable. How would we in Australia feel if we’d got ourselves into some sort of regional union and our laws were determined in Djakarta? Mightn’t some of us be agitating for Auxit?
If Brexit is postponed or abandoned what will those who voted for it do? One possibility is nothing much. It is unlikely that Brexiteers will rise up and lynch the cabinet or sack the Palace of Westminster (the only thing in ruins will be Britain’s reputation for democracy). There may be a few demonstrations but no riots, because riots these days tend to be a preserve of the Left, and few leftists are Brexiteers. Then, unlike the French, the British don’t do street revolutions. There may be some civil disobedience, perhaps boycotts of EU products. But when it’s all over, a humiliated Britain will still be in the EU and the entrenched forces of Remain will make sure it stays there.
That is one possibility. Another is that this is such an important issue that Britain’s tradition of civil order will be stretched to breaking point. This is the view of two British dons – Professors Betz and Smith of King’s College, London – whose field of war studies examines ‘why things fall apart, how a stable, essentially self-policing, productive society can turn into an ungovernable tumult roiling with rage.’ According to them, the society in question finds itself in a situation that perfectly mirrors what would happen if Brexit falls through. People rebel, they write, ‘not so much when they are materially deprived… but when a significant gap materialises between the future they have been promised and expect and the reality of their actual circumstance.’
It’s happened before over national political issues. There were the Corn Law riots in 1815 and before that the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780. Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax provoked riots in 1990, although they were largely fuelled by leftists. Reaction to Brexit failure will really depend on how much anger Brexiteers summon up. Will they be ‘roiling with rage’?
There is of course no good reason, nor ever was, why Brexit should fail. That it has come so close to doing so is entirely the fault of politicians and bureaucrats. Their self-importance has obstructed and obfuscated what should have been a simple matter of Britain withdrawing from a treaty by mutual agreement. And on the EU side self-importance is to blame for more than that. If Eurocrats hadn’t pursued their vainglorious ambition to turn what was, when Britain joined it in 1973, a ‘common market’ into an artificial state with flag and president and all the other paraphernalia of statehood, including quasi-imperial authority over its member countries, there’d have been no need for Brexit.
The British government’s negotiating attitude hasn’t helped either. It has gone cap in hand to Brussels as though asking for a favour. Britain was once the country that stood up to – and defeated – European tyrants. What went wrong?
Then there’s the terror of ‘no deal’. But this is a confected fear, whipped up in support of Mrs May’s craven proposals for a ‘Brexit’ which would lock Britain in as an economic vassal of the EU. Polls repeatedly show that the electorate has no fear of leaving the EU without an agreement and reverting to World Trade Organisation terms. Things might be a bit rocky for a few weeks, but what about the spirit of the Blitz? Anyway, manufacturers in the EU want to sell to Britain just as the British want to sell to Europe and they’ll find a way to bypass parasitical bureaucrats who contribute nothing to the economy apart from sending in their expense accounts.
If Mrs May could find the courage to tell the EU it’s no deal she would secure her place in history as the visionary prime minister who led Britain out of the third of its disastrous entanglements with Europe since 1914.