Everyone, understandably, is focusing on the white 'nostalgia' bit of Vince Cable’s speech to the Lib Dem conference. His slur against older Brexit voters, whom he thinks voted against the EU because they want to go back to a world where ‘passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink’, has caused a stink, and rightly so. But there was something else in the speech too that ought to send shivers down the spine of all of us who believe in democracy. Something which captured better than anything else in recent months just how fragile the ideal of democracy is in this era of political-class hysteria over Brexit.
It was the section where Cable talked about having been on a political journey. ‘I myself have been on a journey’, he said. He then described that journey:
‘[M]y own initial reaction to the referendum was to think maybe there was little choice but to pursue Brexit. I thought, you know, the public had voted to be poorer — well, that was their right. What changed my mind was the evidence that Brexit had overwhelmingly been the choice of the older generation. Seventy-five per cent of under-25s voted to remain. But 70 per cent of over-65s voted for Brexit.’
Read that again. Read it closely. What Mr Cable is saying here, openly, without shame, is that he initially thought the public had the right to vote for whatever they wanted but now he has changed his mind. His first response to Brexit was to disagree with what the masses voted for but to think to himself: ‘Well, that was their right.’ But now something has ‘changed my mind’. In short, he has changed his mind about democracy. He no longer believes the public has the right to vote for something that he thinks will be damaging to the nation or which will ‘crush the hopes’ of the younger generation, in his melodramatic words. Let’s whittle this down, shall we: Mr Cable used to believe in democracy but now he doesn’t. Journey? I’ll say.
Even worse, the reason Cable changed his mind about ‘their right’ — that is, the people’s right — to determine the fate of the nation is because ‘Brexit had overwhelmingly been the choice of the older generation’. So the fact that Brexit was more popular among older people than younger people has made Cable question the validity of this vote in particular, and more broadly, it seems, the right of the public to shape politics as they see fit. Consider the message this sends to older generations. It says they are worth less than the young. It says their votes do not, or should not, carry the same weight as young people’s votes. It tells older people that if they make up a large section of a mass democratic vote, then that mass democratic vote is problematic, and ripe for overturning.
It is a poisonous message. It demeans older people. It makes them second-class citizens. It also calls into question the entire basis of democracy, which is the ideal of ‘One Person, One Vote’: the belief that the vote of the poor man is equivalent to the vote of the rich man, or that the vote of a woman has the same power as the vote of a man, or that the vote of the 65-year-old former factory worker in Stoke carries the same weight as the vote of a 21-year-old Remainer studying PPE at Oxford. The older communities and working-class communities and northern communities and Welsh communities who voted for Brexit have been told time and again that they are stupid, racist, nostalgic and destructive, and that us cleverer people in London must now organise a second referendum to rectify their horrific mistake. This will devastate trust in politics. It will destroy for a generation, at least, people’s belief in the democratic system, in the possibility of their effecting change through the ballot box. To save the EU, some seem prepared to kill British democracy: what a terrible trade-off.
We should be grateful to Cable for making this speech, for he has clearly laid out what is truly at stake in the ongoing Brexit debate. His insulting of large groups of voters as racist reminds us how aloof and patrician the political class has become. His change of mind about the public’s right to vote for things that he and other apparently bright people think will be bad for Britain reminds us how dramatically the elite is turning against democracy. And his elevation of the needs of the young over the beliefs of the old confirms that our rulers are losing faith in political equality itself. He has given us a chilling insight into their mindset. He says some older voters want to go back to the 1950s, yet it seems he and his cheerleaders want to go back even further: to the 1750s, before the pesky people of Britain had ‘their right’ to vote for whatever political course of action they desired.