Brendan O’Neill

Stopping Brexit means stopping democracy

Stopping Brexit means stopping democracy
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I always shudder when I hear people say, ‘Let’s stop Brexit’. They say it so casually, so cavalierly. It rolls off the tongue as if it were no big deal. They seem utterly unmoved by what ‘stopping Brexit’ would entail and the consequences it would have. It would mean blocking the largest act of democracy in the history of this nation. And its consequences would be to sow mass doubt in Britain’s democratic institutions and bring about an exodus of ordinary people from public life. ‘What’s the point in voting’, they would ask, ‘when they just ignore us?’. We have to get real. Stopping Brexit means stopping democracy. If we kill Brexit, we kill democracy itself.

At the end of this tumultuous week, it is clear that virtually every wing of the political establishment — save a few brave voices, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Kate Hoey — wants to stop Brexit. Some are honest about it. Like those Remainers who agitate daily for a second referendum and who often take to the streets waving placards saying, ‘CUT THE BREXSHIT’. I am implacably opposed to Remainerism but I have developed a begrudging respect for these people of late, because they are at least open about their desire to frustrate the people’s will. They’re entirely unbashful. ‘Yes, we have to stop Brexit’, they say, knowing full well this means telling the masses of Stoke, Wales, Essex and elsewhere that they do not matter, and there is something admirable in this honesty, even if the political aim is horrendous.

And some are dishonest about it. Like Theresa May and those sections of the Cabinet that capitulated to her deal that will strangle British sovereignty and reduce us to a craven vassal state that not only has to abide by EU rules but will also lack any mechanism for unilaterally withdrawing from them. A ‘Brexit deal’, they call it. Do not insult our intelligence. Voters are not as dim as you think. We know this deal represents the thwarting of Brexit, not the realisation of it. We voted to take back control from Brussels and you have ceded greater control to Brussels. We voted to wriggle free of unaccountable EU decision-making and you have tied us even tighter into unaccountable EU decision-making. Anyone who calls this a ‘Brexit deal’ is a liar or a fool. May and the rest are stopping Brexit too, but they lack the honesty of the more upfront Remainer agitators.

Everywhere one turns now there is talk of ‘stopping Brexit’. ‘Brexit can still be stopped’, says one headline this week. Tony Blair still believes Brexit can be stopped, news reports tell us. ‘How to Stop Brexit’ was the title of Nick Clegg’s book, probably because that is shorter and more morally palatable than ‘How to Prevent Stupid People Who Didn’t Go To Oxford From Having Any Kind of Meaningful Say in Political Life’. When Jeremy Corbyn said last week that Brexit cannot be stopped, he was rounded on furiously and denounced by Remainer activists and commentators, when it is actually their cry to ‘Stop Brexit’ that is genuinely chilling and horrific, not Corbyn’s plea to keep Brexit alive.

Brexit is in a perilous position. And if you find that to be good, or even funny, then you haven’t reckoned with the historically dire consequences that would spring from the elite’s slaying of this most populous vote in the history of this nation. The death of Brexit would devastate democracy. It would call into question the value of that precious, hard-won thing that every British adult was finally granted in 1928: the franchise. It would empty the franchise of meaning, by making it clear that on the really big, constitutional issues — such as Britain’s relationship with the EU — ordinary people shouldn’t actually have a say. They aren’t smart enough, educated enough, good enough.

It would lay to waste the belief that propelled every British struggle for the expansion of the franchise, first to men, then to certain women and working-class men, and finally to women under the age of 30: the belief that everyday people have the moral and mental capacity, and ought therefore to have the right, to play a role in determining the fate of the nation. ‘You don’t actually have that capacity, we were wrong about that’, the Stop Brexit lobby says, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, and the consequence of that will be to demoralise the demos and convince vast swathes of the British populace that politics isn’t for them. Brexit was for many their one big chance to make a grand statement to the political class — kill this and you kill their hopes for having any kind of impact on the nation and the future.

Here is Britain in 2018: our chattering classes traipse to the cinema to weep over Mike Leigh’s new movie Peterloo, which tells the story of the heroic working-class struggle for the right to vote, and then they go home and get back on Twitter and carry on agitating for the overthrow of stupid working-class people’s vote for Brexit. They fantasise that they are on the side of the marchers of Peterloo, when in truth they are on the side of the cavalry, only they want to cut down our democracy with bad deals and shady sellouts rather than with bayonets.