Today is a great day for British democracy. One of the greatest ever, in fact. Tune out Project Fear, with its overblown claims that Brexit will cause economic collapse and possibly revive fascism, and just think about what is happening today. The largest democratic mandate in the history of this nation, the loudest, clearest, most populous democratic cry Britons have ever made, is finally being acted upon. The political class is starting the process of severing Britain’s ties with the EU not because it wants to — it desperately doesn’t want to — but because a great swarm of its people have told it that it must. This is amazing. This is wonderful. This is democracy.
This is what generations of Britons fought for. From the Levellers of the 1640s — who radically insisted that even ‘the poorest he’ should have a say in politics — to the working-class Chartists of the 19th century and the Suffragettes of the 20th, the ideal that animated every warrior for the franchise was precisely that ordinary people — whatever their standing, whatever their education — should have the right to determine their nation’s destiny.
Brexit follows in this radical democratic tradition. In fact it is its high point. The very sections of society that had to fight hard for the right to vote — ‘the poorest he’; urban working-class men; women, particularly women over 50, a large majority of whom voted for Brexit — made their political desires plain on 23 June last year. They said, in their millions, ‘Let’s leave’. Brexit is not the handiwork of Ukip demagogues or buses with false promises on them. It’s a result of decades and decades of the glorious expansion of the franchise to the kind of people who very often hold different ideas and values to Westminster. Brexit is the historic promise of democracy made real, made flesh.
What we’re witnessing in Britain today, with Theresa May triggering Article 50, is something radical: the political class is going against its own judgement under the duress of the demos. The polite, peaceful duress of the demos, it should be pointed out.
We know that 73 per cent of MPs want to stay in the EU. We know many in the House of Lords are horrified by Brexit and were keen to hold it up. We know 70 per cent of business leaders wanted Britain to remain, and that some of them launched costly legal battles to try to stymie the Brexit momentum. And yet in the end, all of them, every one, has had to roll over and give in to the masses: to the builders, nurses, teachers, mums, old blokes, unemployed people and others who effectively said to the political class: ‘You’re wrong. We should leave’. To the people surprised that such a state of affairs can exist, that the political set can be made to do something it doesn’t want to by the mass of society, including even uneducated people: what did you think democracy meant? This is what it means.
I can understand why some people find this scary, this act of mass and rebellious democracy. To those who love the EU, and those who had come to think of democracy as the rather sedate business of picking a party once every four years, it must feel shocking and disorientating that 17.4million people have been able to cow the political class and change the nature and future of this nation. But personally I find it inspiring, enlivening, proof that the democratic ideal is in rude health. All the rather snotty things that have been said about the demos in recent years — they’re apathetic, fearful, stuck in their ways — have been magnificently disproven by Brexit. With its turnout of 72.2 per cent and its massive cry to rip up the 21st-century political rulebook, Brexit proved, once and for all, that Britain’s democratic citizens take their responsibilities seriously, and are willing to take huge political risks, and can think for themselves, rather than slavishly following the advice of their betters. Brexit showed that rumours of democracy’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
This isn’t about being triumphalist over the 16.1million who voted for ‘Remain’. These are good people too, who also take their democratic duty incredibly seriously. No, it’s about being triumphalist about the fact that democracy survives, that in Britain in 2017 it is the people who decide. We should celebrate this. In St Mary’s Church in Putney in London, where the Levellers and other Parliamentarians in the Civil War met in 1647 to hammer out a pretty radical idea called ‘democracy’, the words of one Thomas Rainsborough are emblazoned on the wall: ‘The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.’ This is what Brexit means: recognition that the everyday, non-expert ‘he’ — and ‘she’ — ought to have as much clout in political decision-making as the greatest, most well-connected ‘he’. Happy Article 50 Day, everyone.