Brendan O’Neill

If Brexit doesn’t happen, then Britain isn’t a democracy

If Brexit doesn’t happen, then Britain isn’t a democracy
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It’s the casualness with which they’re saying it that is truly disturbing. ‘I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen’, said Vince Cable on Sunday morning TV, with expert nonchalance, as if he were predicting rain. He echoed Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt, who a few days earlier informed viewers that there is talk in ‘some quarters’ that ‘Brexit may not actually happen’. Leaving the EU? ‘I think that is very much open to question now’, said Lord Heseltine last month, with imperious indifference. He could have been asking a minion to pass the butter.

They say it matter-of-factly, sometimes a little gleefully. As if it wouldn’t be a disgrace, a black-mark-against-the-nation disgrace, if Brexit were not to happen. As if failing to act on the wishes of 17.4 million people — the most populous democratic demand in the history of this nation — wouldn’t represent one of the worst snubs to the democratic ideal in the modern era. This is the bottom line: if Brexit doesn’t happen, then Britain’s claim to be a democratic nation will be called into question. Our democracy will be compromised, perhaps beyond repair.

That politicians can breezily flirt with the idea of reneging on the wishes of 17.4 million people tells us what a dire state the democratic ideal is in a year on from the referendum. A year of legal challenges by filthy-rich businesspeople and chattering-class rage against ‘low information’ voters has left not just Brexit beaten and bruised, but democracy too. When people say, ‘Yeah, that Brexit thing, it might not happen, and it’s probably just as well’, I hear: ‘Democracy is a mistake.’ To try to block Brexit is to display an alarming disregard for what is perhaps the most important idea of the enlightened era: that the people should shape the political fate of their nation.

Cable says Brexit is just too complicated. ‘The problems are so enormous’, he said on Sunday. He echoes various experts, or what Plato had the honesty to call philosopher-kings: people who believe their cleverness makes them better at political decision-making than the plebs. Brexit is ‘hideously technical’, experts say. ‘The British people have unleashed a process potentially as complex as it is unpredictable’, they whine, and so perhaps we should call it off. Others say Brexit was based on lies — about NHS funding, immigration numbers, a future of milk and honey etc — and that’s why it shouldn’t happen. It would be mad to let Britain be shaped by a referendum result that was the handiwork of myth-making demagogues.

Bless them, they think these are original arguments, when in fact such haughty disdain for the demos and its political choices is as old as democracy itself. In the 1840s, when the Chartists demanded the vote for working-class men, they were told they lacked ‘ripened wisdom’ and thus were ‘more exposed than any other class to the vicious ends of faction’. That is, they were easily bought off by demagogues. When women demanded the vote, they were told that an ‘excess of sympathy in their mental constitution’ meant they lacked ‘logical power and judicial impartiality’. In the Brexit era, that is said about all voters, female and male, which is a progress of sorts, I guess. Brexit has brought out ‘the lowest human impulses’, says Ian McEwan. Cheers Ian.

That the arguments against Brexit — the masses fell for misinformation, it was a ‘howl of rage’, etczzz — sound so similar to old arguments against democracy is not a coincidence. Because the railing against Brexit is fundamentally a railing against the idea that we should entrust the political future to ordinary people — which is otherwise known as democracy.

Some angry Remainers say: ‘Are you saying we cannot argue against Brexit? Doesn’t democracy mean being free to express political opinion?’ Of course! People absolutely have the right to weep and wail and take to the streets over Brexit. To say they hate Brexit and wish it would die in a ditch. To exaggerate the impact Brexit will have on the economy and political stability. My personal view is that such Remoaning adds enormously to the gaiety of the nation. It’s cute and hilarious that people who call themselves progressive should now devote their lives and Twitterfeeds to bitching about the demos. But here’s the thing: if you're using your clout or influence or money to ensure that Brexit doesn’t happen, then you aren’t engaging in democratic debate — you’re seeking to overturn a free and fair democratic decision. You’re saying you know better than the masses. You are thwarting the democratic process.

We have to get real. If Brexit doesn't happen, democracy will be gravely wounded for a generation. The people will receive loud and clear the message that they don’t really matter. Sure, we’ll still have General Elections and pick our MPs. But the Brexit betrayal would rankle for decades, a sore on the body politic, a niggling reminder that when democracy returned a result that the political class didn't like, Britain flinched, and turned its back on democracy. Brexit must happen. It simply must. Because 17.4 million people want it, and democracy needs it.