William Hazlitt said hypocrisy is the only unforgivable vice. He would surely have a field day with our current crop of politicians. But perhaps the worst of the bunch is Caroline Lucas. The Green MP responded to the Liberal Democrat’s promise to overturn Article 50 without even a further referendum by saying:
Lucas is partly correct: the Lib Dem’s policy move is remarkable in its audaciousness. Jo Swinson recently told us that she could never forgive David Cameron for his decision to have an in-out EU referendum, conveniently forgetting the fact that she herself called for such a referendum back in 2008 and that nearly all Lib Dem MPs voted in favour of the EU Referendum Act in 2015.
Having told voters that they could decide whether or not the UK stayed in the EU, it takes some nerve for a party to say they will take the decision back on the grounds that voters gave the wrong answer.
The Lib Dem policy is hard to defend and, arguably, politically unwise. Yet at least it is honest. Jo Swinson has told voters quite clearly that if they don’t like the new policy, they should not vote Lib Dem. Voters may well decide to take that advice.
In contrast, where does one start with Caroline Lucas’s response? She has been campaigning for an in-out EU referendum for longer than most. She voted for one back in 2011. And the Green party as a whole explicitly backed such a vote in their 2015 General Election manifesto.
A day after the 2016 referendum, Lucas admitted to being devastated by the result but she called for people to understand leave voters’ motivation and to search for healing.
Those sentiments did not last long. Less than a month later, Caroline Lucas was backing calls for another referendum. In February 2017, she voted against Article 50 being triggered. And earlier this summer she admitted that if Leave won again in a second referendum, she probably wouldn't back a Brexit deal.
The Green party believes that “politics should be done by people – not to them” and argues for a system in which “every vote counts”. Possibly they mean “counts” in the sense that they will count the votes that agree with them and ignore the others.
The concept of a second referendum goes against a longstanding democratic principle. This sets out that when we have a vote based on rules on which all parties agree, the outcome is respected by the losers. It is, of course, fine for people to change their mind. But the result of the vote must be implemented first. There is no dishonour in voting remain, regretting the result and arguing for the UK to re-join the EU in the future. There is deep dishonour in working tirelessly to stop the UK leaving in the first place.
Imagine if the roles had been reversed and remain had won in 2016 but leave MPs happened to be in the majority. We can only imagine the (justified) outrage if MPs had told voters that they were going to take the UK out of the EU anyway, unless people proved they had not changed their minds in a second referendum.
In fact, the current situation is even worse than that. The referendum being proposed by the Greens and others would be a choice between remain and leaving with some version of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Given that the Agreement would see the EU retaining control over much of UK law but without any UK representation, many leavers would see this a remain vs remain vote. Most leavers would simply refuse to engage with the process. The idea that another referendum would help to heal divisions and settle the issue once-and-for-all is very wide of the mark.
Democracy in the UK is facing an existential crisis. Having asked voters to decide whether or not they wanted to continue with EU membership, those MPs on the losing side are actively campaigning to block the decision. Just like Labour and the Greens, the Liberal Democrats are directly campaigning against democracy. But at least they have now decided to do so openly rather than hiding behind the hypocritical fig leaf of another referendum.
So who gets the prize for the most anti-democratic party of all? It’s a close call. But given the hypocrisy of supporting an in-out EU referendum right up until the people decided to opt for out rather than in, the Greens surely have it.
David Paton is professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School