It’s time to bust the convenient myth that Brexit was a triumph for democracy

It’s been two years since Britain voted to leave the European Union and over at spiked, Brendan O’Neill calls on his readers to ‘Raise a pint to this revolt!’ O’Neill has spent much of the last two years accusing every critic of Brexit of being a traitor to British democracy. His site has positioned itself as a champion of the people – calling for the abolition of the House of Lords because the Lords have resisted the government’s approach and decrying any media criticism as evidence of elite prejudice against common voters. O’Neill is just one of many Brexit cheerleaders who have decided to ignore the stark realities of leaving the EU and embrace a convenient myth: that the Brexit vote was a triumph for democracy.

Pro-Brexit media, from the snooty Daily Telegraph to the ostensibly populist Daily Mail, have consistently ignored the economic realities of leaving the world’s largest trading bloc. The warnings from major international companies across a variety of sectors, from Goldman Sachs to Airbus and now BMW, have been derided. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has warned that Brexit has already made Britain poorer. Again, he has been dismissed as a naysayer and unreconstructed europhile. Just like during the campaign, all negative indications are dismissed as ‘Project Fear.’

Legitimate warnings from seriously concerned people and organsiations are classed as anti-Brexit propaganda, and to Brexit fanatics, this is anti-British propaganda. That’s the logic of Brexit extremists, and it chimes very clearly with Donald Trump’s constant cries of ‘fake news.’ The fact that the UK economy is now effectively stagnant is likewise ignored. There is no Brexit dividend for the NHS and there will never be.

File photo of Boris Johnson making his Vote Leave speech in Preston, Lancs., along with Michael Gove and Priti Patel as they bring their Brexit roadshow to the Lancashire city. 1 June 2016. The bus used in the Vote Leave campaign has now been bought by Greenpeace.

Even more pernicious than willfully ignoring the economic realities of Brexit is the great lie that Brexit is a victory for democracy and any opposition to it is anti-democratic. No mention is made of the campaign of lies, the ugly and untrue attacks on immigrants or the emerging questions about the behaviour of Vote Leave. Accusations of impropriety may take years to fully investigate.

Brexiteers who demanded parliamentary supremacy during the campaign froth at the mouth if this supremacy is expressed by the Lords. The upper house is undemocratic, they say, and should have no say over Brexit. Perhaps this is a position consistent with a love for democracy, but it smacks of a much more tribal attitude. They want Westminster to be sovereign, but only on their terms. Even conscientious objection to Brexit, or parts of it, has become an act of ‘elitism.’

Those elites, of course, are the experts derided by Michael Gove; they are the seasoned politicians with genuine fears for their constituents’ livelihoods and their country’s future; they are the leaders of Scotland and Ireland, who see nothig but danger ahead. Not every Brexit extremist will go as far as tabloids who smear judges, but the commitment to the project has become all consuming.

Naturally, the same people who claim to be defending democracy are dead set against a second referendum. Brendan O’Neill has been keen to rule out any second vote, claiming holding one would actually be an insult to democracy. But why? If the will of the people is the ultimate decision-making mechanism, then why deny the people a vote on the final deal? About half of the British public now want a second vote and that number is likely to rise as March 2019 approaches. If the will of the people is so inviolable, if the will of the people is truly sovereign, then there is no reason to deny them a second vote on Brexit. The only reason to do so is fear.

There is a new Project Fear in today’s Britain. It is being pushed by pro-Brexit media and politicians and its message is simple: Brexit is under threat, voting on it must be restricted, the people have already spoken. Yes, and the people should not be allowed to speak again in case they decide the price of Brexit is too much to pay. This is not a true commitment to democracy. It is a perversion of democracy for cynical political ends. No, the Brexit extremists are not champions of democracy. They are cynically exploiting democratic rhetoric to further their agenda while deliberately rejecting reality. The people will not forgive them.


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