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What Caroline Flint’s Brexit critics fail to understand

22 October 2019

1:38 PM

22 October 2019

1:38 PM

It must feel pretty lonely being Caroline Flint right now. The Labour MP has made herself unpopular with her comrades by backing Boris Johnson’s deal to leave the EU. Flint campaigned for Remain but accepts that her Don Valley constituency voted 68 per cent Leave. In the former mining towns of her South Yorkshire seat, Flint points out, the figure was closer to 80 per cent. ‘The voices in our mining villages remain unheard, despite their support for Labour over many decades,’ she records in her Labour case for respecting the outcome of the 2016 referendum. 

Both Flint and her case have now felt the ire of the progressive Brexitariat, the analysts, academics and activists who frame elite debate on EU withdrawal.

They are particularly irritable at the moment after ridiculing every fool who suggested Johnson could get Brussels to move on an exit deal only to find themselves left wearing the jester’s hat.

Worse, this new deal is one Parliament looks perilously close to passing, but only if Labour MPs in heavily Leave seats like Flint, Melanie Onn and Ruth Smeeth vote for it. For the Brexitariat, the idea of people in Grimsby and Stoke-on-Trent determining the fate of the nation is almost as absurd as Brexit itself. They are supposed to decide for such people, not the other way around. 

In a panic, they are heaping desperate opprobrium on the likes of Flint in the hope of bringing her back into line. Polly Toynbee scowls that the Brown-era Europe Minister ‘takes over the Kate Hoey rank-outsider role on the furthest backbench’, before adding with a pitiful attempt at menace:

‘How many want to join her in that isolated slot?’

The Guardian columnist wonders how long it will be before Flint’s sort go along with a Priti Patel-led ‘restoration of capital punishment’ or ‘banishment of foreigners’. 

Toynbee, who writes like an HR manager emailing to ask why you didn’t turn up for free lunchtime yoga, scolds:

‘Labour MPs who help Johnson to victory, by backing his Brexit to satisfy their constituents, will find themselves unforgiven even if not expelled. Each Johnson act that passes, each budget turn of the screw, will belong to them in perpetuity, no way back.’

For an avowed atheist, she certainly likes her hellfire and brimstone. It’s not just Toynbee, though; perfectly sensible people are coming out with this stuff.

Steve Richards, the normally perceptive writer and broadcaster, avers that Flint is ‘a heroine for those seeking to turbo charge Thatcherism outside the EU’ and a ‘tame delegate’, while Baroness Ludford, the Lib Dems’ Brexit spokeswoman in the Lords, accuses her of ‘acting like a Brexit cultist’.

The Times’ Oliver Kamm, who is right about everything except dangling modifiers and this, rejects Flint’s belief that passing a deal is essential to national ‘healing’ as ‘ludicrous psychobabble’. 

Flint is tough enough to withstand these sorts of jibes but it is nonetheless admirable that she takes the stance she does. Firstly, she represents the will of her constituents and the country as a whole. Secondly, she reassures those of us who voted Remain but accept the result and are disturbed by the mass outbreak of democracy-denial on our side that we are not alone. It’s easy to stand up in Parliament or on Sky News and quiver about how your opponents are bringing fascism one goose-step closer. It’s much harder to stick up for your rivals, even when you hotly dispute their views, because, in the end, they won. 

The Brexitariat scoffs at such talk. Flint should heed the wisdom of Edmund Burke in telling the electors of Bristol that an MP ‘owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion‘.

Burke was correct in regard to the political settlement he described, but MPs upended that settlement when they voted for a referendum, vowed to enforce its outcome, voted to trigger Article 50 and sought election on manifestos pledging to honour the result. MPs chose to subordinate their judgment to that of the people and only decided to reassert it when the people made the wrong choice. If Flint seems like a tame delegate it is because those around her are faithless electors. 

The Brexit debate has never moved past the Burke fault line.

Brexit will be a disaster, warn the latter-day Burkeans. It might well be but the people voted for it. Should a vote in favour of Scottish independence or a Corbyn government be disregarded to avoid the political and economic impacts?

The EU referendum was merely advisory, the result was secured through lies, and the Russians interfered. All may be true. But had the same process produced a Remain result, does anyone doubt the same people would be lauding the vote as a gold-standard democratic endorsement of our continuing membership of the EU?

MPs must represent their constituents’ interests rather than their prejudices. Even allowing that MPs are pursuing their constituents’ interests as opposed to their own preferences, are they able to discern interests beyond the immediate financial? Whether the Brexitariat likes it or not, there are many electors who prize national sovereignty and border control over economics, a worldview most MPs cannot begin to comprehend but a perfectly rational one all the same. 

In the end, Brexit is as much about political and cultural capital as it is about our relationship with Europe. The liberal centre, which had won almost every battle for a generation, finally lost, and lost big, while voters on the other side of some of those battles finally claimed a victory.

Toynbee inadvertently stumbles onto this when she decries that Nigel Farage ‘has seven times failed to be elected MP’ but ‘has nonetheless shaped every step of the country’s disastrous path out of Europe’.

It’s true, but why might that be? Is it not because Farage capitalised on a cause with a large public constituency but no major party willing to champion it? Because MPs ignored voters’ interpretation of their interests, causing them to seek out someone who would listen? 

Caroline Flint recognises what the Brexitariat does not: that unless the electorate accedes to Parliament’s will and puts Brexit from its mind forevermore, another Farage will come along, and another, and another after that. Leaving may not be healing but remaining pries the wound open for every passing demagogue to stick a finger in.

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