It is coming to something when Vladimir Putin has a better understanding of democracy than many in Britain’s own political class. When this not especially democratic bruiser from the East demonstrates greater respect for the will of the British people than some of our own leaders do. Yes, just when you thought 2018 couldn’t get any odder, here comes actual Vladimir Putin to put British politicos straight about the nature of democracy.
Yesterday, Putin lashed out at those in Britain who want a second referendum — and presumably a third and a fourth and a fifth until the plebs finally relent and say: ‘Okay, okay, we’ll vote to stay in the EU!’ Britain has to ‘fulfil the will of the people expressed in the referendum’, said Putin. As to the idea of having a People’s Vote — which should be called a Second People’s Vote, because we already had a people’s vote, in June 2016 — Putin says it is wrong for elites constantly to badger the electorate until it gives the answer they want to hear. ‘Someone disliked the result, so repeat it over and over? Is this democracy?’
No, Vlad, it isn’t. It’s the opposite. It’s an establishment forcing a people to vote again before the thing they voted for the first time has even been enacted — like if Barack Obama was prevented from going to the White House following his victory in the 2008 and instead the American people were forced to reconsider. If people must vote again because ‘someone disliked the result’ — ‘someone’ being those sections of the establishment who think us low-information voters gave the wrong answer in 2016 — then ‘what would be the point of the referendum in the first place?’, Putin asks.
Here’s the thing: Putin is right. He’s bang on. And he is echoing the views of many British voters. Is he saying all this for cynical reasons, because he knows the People’s Vote lobby tends to be quite anti-Russian? Sure. Is he motored more broadly by a nationalistic hostility to the European Union? Yep. Should he mind his own political business? Definitely. Does he have a leg to stand on when it comes to defending democracy? Nope. His rule is hardly a paragon of democratic virtue, given how difficult it is for opposition movements to operate freely in Russia. But he’s still right. And he’s only saying things that Britain’s own progressives and liberals ought to be saying, but notably are not.
Predictably, some in the ‘People’s Vote’ lobby, that most agitated section of the Remainer set, are holding up Putin’s comments as proof that Russia is super pro-Brexit and might even have been behind the vote for Brexit. Putin made us do it! His meme armies and online trolls polluted the British web with EU-bashing material, and as a result the dim little people of the UK were brainwashed into voting Leave at the referendum. That is what some in the Remain camp really think: that voters are so bone-headed, so suggestible, so untrustworthy when it comes to making political decisions, that sinister forces from the East could colonise our brains and drive us, Manchurian Candidate style, to vote against the EU. It’s all so staggeringly contemptuous.
In truth, Putin’s comments do nothing whatsoever to call into question the legitimacy of the Brexit vote. And nor do they embarrass Theresa May, as some are claiming, by showing that Putin is ‘on her side’. No, his comments heap shame on those sections of the UK’s own liberal-leaning establishment that have spent the past couple of years railing against, and seeking to undermine, the largest democratic vote in UK history. Because we have now reached a situation where these people have turned so thoroughly against the idea of democracy, have become so sniffy about mass politics, that even Putin can look democratic in comparison to them. A foreign, illiberal, oligarchical-style leader has more faith in ordinary British voters than a great many British politicians and observers do — what a perverse and tragic state of affairs.