Nick Cohen

The Brexit right is letting ideology trump democracy

The Brexit right is letting ideology trump democracy
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If Britain were not in the middle of a nervous breakdown, Shahmir Sanni would be a national hero. As it is, the British right has done its damnedest to wreck the life of the whistleblower who provided the evidence that pro-Brexit groups Vote Leave and BeLeave “worked to a common plan” to break “legal spending limits”.

Sanni defended the rule of law and the integrity of the democratic process. His fate tells you much about modern Britain – none of it good. It illustrates the most striking feature of the extremes that dominate our country: their contempt for objective truth and for the elementary belief that democracy requires all sides to uphold minimum standards.

In the new Britain, if my side cheats, I quietly applaud it, while pretending it hasn’t cheated at all. If a public body finds my side guilty, I say it’s biased. I allow ideology to trump democracy, in other words, and allow my hatreds to destroy democratic institutions. No concern can be genuine; no motive untainted. Bald statements of truth become smears.

Sanni went to the Observer and the Electoral Commission to protect the electoral system. That was his sole motive. He did not reveal breaches of electoral law because he had changed his mind and become an apostate to the Brexit cause – although that is how the ayatollahs of the right have treated him. Sanni believes what he believed when he left the University of East Anglia and found work with Vote Leave as a 22-year-old. Coming from a Pakistani family, he was all too aware of the double standard that gave migrants from Europe preferential treatment over Asian and black migrants from the subcontinent and Caribbean. When he thought Vote Leave and BeLeave were breaking the law he had a crisis of conscience. Or as his lawyers said:

‘[He] resolved that he should take steps to address the illegality in the referendum result. He felt that it was incumbent on him personally to do so because he was in a unique position given his direct experience with Vote Leave. [He] remained a staunch advocate for the UK leaving the European Union, but his overriding belief (which informed and guided his view of the UK’s membership of the EU) was in the sanctity of British  democracy. The illegality of the Vote Leave campaign, combined with [his] belief in the sanctity of British democracy, therefore dictated the Claimant’s decision to take steps to address this illegality by sharing his knowledge of it.’

The Electoral Commission vindicated Sanni’s stance. I need to emphasise this point. It didn’t make ‘allegations’ about the leave campaign’s cheating as the ever-credulous BBC reported. The Commission has law enforcement powers. It reaches judgements and imposes sanctions.

The response from the right has been, like so much of modern British politics, pure Trump. Substantial findings were smears from a biased source. Evidence that had been meticulously collected was fake news. Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott accused the Electoral Commission of rigging its inquiry and failing to follow due process. Its findings were ‘riddled with errors’ because the Commission ignored Vote Leave’s ‘detailed evidence’.

The Commission rejected the accusation – to put it mildly. Vote Leave ‘refused to cooperate, refused our requests to put forward a representative for interview, and forced us to use our legal powers to compel it to provide evidence. Nevertheless, the evidence we have found is clear and substantial, and can now be seen in our report.’

The logic of British Trumpism turns accusations about process into accusations about substance. The commission itself is rotten, the Brexit right now declares. It is engaged in ‘deliberate attempts to delegitimise the historic vote to Leave the EU in 2016’. Why would it want to do that? Because its senior staff ‘openly supported Remain’. In its delirium, the Brexit mind has imagined judges as ‘enemies of the people’, turned MPs exercising their Burkean right to follow their conscience into ‘mutineers,’ and considered arraigning the prime minister as a ‘traitor’. I’m looking everywhere but cannot see a single British institution that is surviving the glorious national project to take back control from Brussels.

In this Weimaresque climate, Sanni had to be punished. This week he began a legal action against the TaxPayers’ Alliance, where he found work after the end of the Brexit campaign. He alleges his employers fired him because they thought the details he released of the breaches of electoral law could undermine Brexit, a policy goal for the alliance and a ‘network of [eight other] right-wing entities that act in cohort’. The Taxpayers' Alliance will fight the case and we will see what happens in court. But the brutal chronology remains: Sanni had a job, spoke out in the public interest, then lost his job.

That’s not all he lost. As soon as Sanni went public, Downing Street, not some thuggish right-wing pressure group but the office of the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, tried to hurt him in the most damaging manner it could find.

Theresa May’s special adviser Stephen Parkinson put out a statement via Downing Street revealing that Sanni was gay, and he had been his lover. No attempt was made by the Conservative leadership to explain what his sexuality had to do with the breaking of electoral law, for there was no explanation. The TaxPayers’ Alliance did not rush to condemn the abuse of power by a publicly funded official. The attack was a premeditated attempt to destroy the life of a man from a traditional Muslim family. Fortunately, Sanni tells me, his family have stood by him, but he worries about how Islamists in Pakistan will persecute his sisters in Karachi as a result of Parkinson’s decision to make the personal political.

Leon Trotsky said that the question he always wanted to ask of fellow travellers with the far left was how far were they prepared to go with the communist train before they changed “into the train going the other way”. The same question applies to the fellow travellers with the British far right.

None of the worries about the referendum are going away. There are now two pending police inquiries into the Leave campaigns. Today’s revelations that targeted Facebook advertising somehow managed to push propaganda that leaving the EU would stop bullfighting and save the polar bear are just the start of the revelations coming out of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into fake news and Brexit. From what I hear, its report will make devastating reading when it is released in a few days.

To paraphrase Trotsky how far are British conservatives prepared to go in defending attacks on British democracy? Will they get off the train? Or will they stay on all the way to its grim terminus?

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics