Brendan O’Neill Brendan O’Neill

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

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.

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