16 December 2018

The real danger of a ‘People’s Vote’ to our democracy


Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx theorised that Britain, the country in which capitalism was most advanced, would be the likeliest, most desirable location for Communist revolt. As we know, his predictions didn’t come to fruition.

Though there were eruptions of popular unrest and state repression in the mid-nineteenth century, none materialised into the kind of revolutionary upheavals witnessed on mainland Europe. During the twentieth century, full-scale communist revolutions occurred in undeveloped regions of Asia and Latin America, rather than industrialised Western economies.

Though Britain may have rejected revolution in past centuries, our departure from the European Union offers an outlet for a new kind of radical overhaul – this time, of a much more democratic variety. Yet we are in grave danger of squandering these opportunities through our inability to engage intelligently with the causes of the Brexit vote – coupled with continual attempts to reverse it altogether.

To many UK-based commentators, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is part of a rising populist tide, a howl of unnuanced outrage standing in marked contrast to the civilised political discourse of mainland Europe. Leave voters themselves are spoken of with horror in supposedly refined circles; described as ignorant, unintelligent, ‘gammony’ deplorables.

In a recent Guardian column, Matthew D’Ancona paints the referendum result as a product of nativism and naked bigotry. You could certainly see a degree of that in Theresa May’s narrow interpretation of Brexit, which prioritises ending free movement above all else.

Extrapolating this outlook to 17.4 million people, however, is insulting and wrong, albeit symptomatic of a depressingly popular view in public debate – namely that Brexit is more an issue to be opposed than properly understood. Yet, contrary to evidence-light attempts to pigeonhole Leavers as white supremacists or ‘left behind’ victims, Brexit was supported by a broad and diverse coalition; winning support in ethnically diverse cities like Birmingham, ex-industrial heartlands and affluent middle England alike.

New Pew polling this week found UK citizens to be significantly more supportive of immigration than residents of many other OECD countries. Sizeable majorities in Greece (82 per cent), Hungary (72 per cent), Italy (71 per cent) and Germany (58 per cent) say fewer immigrants or none at all should be allowed to move to their countries. In Britain the figure was a comparatively low 37 per cent.

Granted, these nations have borne a much higher burden of Europe’s recent surge in asylum seekers, but Britain still narrowly edges ahead of countries like France, Poland and the Netherlands, less directly affected by the refugee crisis. The fact that most Brexiteers strongly oppose Chequers and the Draft Withdrawal Bill – despite both ending free movement – should also indicate they are more concerned with sovereignty than lower immigration levels.

Britain may not be a nation of Hayekian free marketeers, any more than it is a country of open border fanatics, yet opinion polls register robust support for free trade, with respondents broadly critical of economic isolationism and the imposition of further tariffs after Brexit.

Crucially, Britain has a centuries-old history of political moderation, partly due to first-past-the-post, but also thanks to a long tradition of parliamentary democracy and stable institutions. Though there are obvious exceptions to this rule, British Eurosceptics, unlike the populist leaders of some continental countries, have tended towards free-trading internationalism – e.g. supporting a common market while opposing political integration, critiquing federalist overreach without abusing Europe and Europeans at the same time.

Even UKIP, the populist face of euroscepticism in Britain, was, until its recent lurch to the far-right, far more moderate than continental eurosceptic parties like the French Front National or Alternative für Deutschland in Germany.

In other words, the UK has all the ingredients to leave the EU sensibly, while maintaining a warm relationship with our European friends thereafter. If you had to choose a member-state, per Marx’s experiment, to be the first to leave, you could do a lot worse than Britain.

But what would happen if democracy and civility were to break down altogether? Suppose, through a second referendum or legal sleight of hand, the vote were either reversed or filtered down to the point of meaninglessness (which is already how many feel about the
government’s Draft Withdrawal Bill). These outcomes risk pushing our previously moderate political system towards extremes and irretrievably destroying the social contract.

Many decent Leave voters, infuriated by this seeming betrayal, might well find themselves voting for the newly-extreme UKIP to prove a point, or else abstaining from the democratic process altogether. Civility and goodwill are already looking dangerously frayed
on both sides of the Brexit divide, but overturning the referendum result would irrevocably poison British politics. Those backing a second referendum might achieve their short term aims – but at a heavy price.

There would be repercussions for the rest of Europe too. At some point in the not-too-distant future, another country will surely vote to leave the EU. Yet instead of a Britain led by moderates, representing voters who look (comparatively) favourably on immigration and free exchange, the next EU departure could well be led by a Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen, coasting the wave of popular discontent. This kind of departure would be far more chaotic, dysfunctional and damaging to European solidarity.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 was, more than a push for lower migration, a call to reshape democracy and make politicians more accountable to their electorates. We now have an opportunity to move away from supranational, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to politics
– provably unpopular, not just in this country, but across Europe. Our departure could also provide a healthy template for post-EU economic relations, promoting free trade and cooperation without the need for sweeping political integration.

Sadly, politicians on both sides of the English Channel look set on maintaining the status quo, in the face of concerted public hostility. They may yet come to regret their hubris. Far more than short-term instability or trading on WTO rules, undermining democracy
would be the real danger.

Madeline Grant is a political commentator.