It seems only fitting, living as we do in the Banter Timeline, that Theresa May won an indecisive vote decisively and Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to accept the will of the electorate. The Prime Minister did not secure the confidence of her party last week; she confirmed their lack of confidence that there is any alternative. Mr Rees-Mogg and 116 of his colleagues know this. I dare say a sight more do too. The net result of last week’s melodrama is that the Prime Minister is both strengthened and weakened and those who want her gone have been defeated and elevated. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad but they are taking the absolute mick now.
We are not back to square one because we never left. It is still the Prime Minister’s deal or, ideally, a new one which keeps the entire UK in the single market. We won’t pretend the course favoured by the zealots is a viable alternative. Proponents of a no-deal Brexit assure us that crashing out would be to our benefit. Tell the buggers to get stuffed and go trade with the emerging economies. We’ve come a long way from Germans falling over themselves to sell us their Audis. Rather than a sprightly butterfly ‘out — and into the world’, we are to be an angry wasp buzzing around the litter bins of world trade. There is a volatility in the air, a turbulence that, unlike almost every other political crisis, the country is aware of. What feels like Armageddon inside the bubble feels like an irritation outside it (‘Why can’t they just get on with it?’) but the closer we get to Brexit Day with no deal impatience will turn to alarm.
The obvious solution is to hold a People’s Vote. The electorate can now see that Brexit is madness, one final heave for late British exceptionalism, and will welcome the opportunity to reverse an historic mistake. Yes, some will be angry but in time they will come to appreciate that it’s for their own good. What matters is that Brexit will be stopped and then we can put this sorry business behind us.
All this is obvious to a majority of MPs, journalists, academics, public sector chief executives and business leaders and yet to a preponderance of the population it is not. Obvious? Try arrogant, imperious, undemocratic and fragrant with class and regional snobbery. Many Britons are wary of Brexit — others terrified — but many and more are committed to the course they have chosen. They may well be wrong, and expert opinion continues to pile up against them, but they are either sceptical of this analysis or believe other benefits outweigh these costs. Some have made a rational choice that maximal sovereignty, national borders and the reallocation of £13 billion annually to domestic budgets are worth the attendant sufferances. Others are motivated by more nebulous instincts: a preference for localness over bigness, an aversion to bossiness, and a longing to restore the dignity of an English national identity.
National identity and cultural cohesion are not squalid concepts in themselves but we have allowed them to be captured by squalid people. The impulse to take back control is inchoate because it has been without structure or leadership but found a negative source of both in the EU. Such voters are called ‘the left behind’ and while some have low incomes what they are more likely to have in common is low cultural capital. They are the receivers, not the takers, of decisions. When ministers or activists or intellectuals announce, as they do with wearying frequency, that the culture has changed, that what yesterday was deviant today is orthodox, that what was mainstream is now ‘inappropriate’, those most affected by the change will have had little say in it. They are not stakeholders, they need not be consulted for a consultation to have taken place, and their traditions and preferences are traduced by those whose salaries they pay and whose research they subsidise. Spend long enough in their position and you’d be sick of experts too.
Brexit was a pitiful clutch at some control over their lives and we are to take it away. In the name of democracy, no less, and because we know better. Working to frustrate a democratic decision is rum enough but to do so while accusing your opponents of fearing democracy takes some chutzpah. Liberals (of which I am one) never accepted the referendum result and have sought to impede it ever since. Their opposition is sincere but it has nothing to do with democracy. A second referendum that goes narrowly for Remain will not be followed by a third, no matter how fundamentally the EU changes, no matter how strongly public opinion backs withdrawal. You will be able to have too much democracy after all. And if Leave wins again, don’t expect Continuity Remain to accept that result either. Why should they? If you think Brexit is an asteroid plummeting to Earth, no majority in favour of giant space rock death will win you round.
Unswerving Remainers are not alone in their estrangement from self-governance. There is a liberalism crisis in democracy, as voters embrace authoritarians, but there is also a democracy crisis in liberalism, with liberals preferring the bland predictability of supranational institutions, social science and managerial centrism. Liberals have responded to nationalism and populism not by standing by democratic principles but by calling them into question. When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, shellshocked liberals got carried away with the idea of blocking his victory in the electoral college. When Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court — over the express edicts of the New York Times — liberals called for court-packing. When the predicted midterm blue wave turned out to be more of a ripple, liberals called for the abolition of the Senate.
Now liberals want to will the EU referendum result out of existence. They have their rationales:
‘They lied.’ Of course they lied; so did we.
‘Russia interfered.’ They would hardly be Russia if they hadn’t.
‘They broke the law.’ Welcome to the world.
My colleague Douglas Murray, who voted Leave, says if Brexit is blocked he will stop voting altogether. That’s a little extreme but I understand the sentiment. I voted Remain and believe Brexit will make us poorer, weaker, less relevant and put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. However, if there is a ‘People’s Vote’, I will abstain because the people already voted and my side lost. Democracy is substance, not quantity. It doesn’t matter how many elections you hold if only some of them are enforced. Withdrawal from the European Union is a mainstream view in the UK. Tell the voters that Brexit is impossible and you are saying mainstream views cannot be realised through the political process — that democracy has closed on the matter. Yes, the voters can be wrong but their fallibility is an ineliminable feature of free polities, to say nothing of human nature. Democracy is more than the guarantor of the state’s legitimacy; it is a function of the individual’s political autonomy and part of that autonomy is the freedom to make bad choices.
Ninety-one per cent of MPs were elected on a manifesto committing them to Brexit. They are not delegates but they are representatives who requested and were handed not one, but two, mandates from the electorate. There is, I believe, no good Brexit to be had but, absent a Norway-style deal, the Prime Minister’s framework — broadly, and subject to tinkering — is tolerable. If MPs cannot bring themselves to support it, it is not another referendum we need but a General Election.