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The Brexit Precedent

2,388 words [1]

Direct democracy is usually not favored by those whose priority is stability. An appeal to the voters to decide on specific issues has the virtue of cutting short party division on the issue in question but is notorious for exacerbating old cross-party divisions. The first referendum in Britain was in 1973 and the first nationwide referendum in 1975. Until then, Britain had been a parliamentary democracy under the conditions of which individual decisions rested in the hands of the elected representatives, never with the people directly. However, since 1973, there has been a slow move towards adopting a more direct but less stable way of affirming political legitimacy, notably through the holding of referenda. In Britain, since that first EU referendum, there have been referenda on Welsh and Scottish parliaments (1997), the Alternative Vote referendum (2012), and Scottish independence (2014) prior to the referendum of 2016. Those who oppose referenda insist that the decision of a majority of the electorate voting on a given issue at a given time should never override the wishes of a majority of parliamentary representatives, deemed to be better informed than the mass of the people. Referenda are “dangerous,” or, as Julian Barnes put it [2] in The London Review of Books on April 20, 2017, a manifestation of what he disdainfully terms “majoritarianism.”

The referendum on June 23, 2016 on whether to leave or remain in the European Union was neither the first nor the last instance of a recourse to direct democracy on specific issues in a country which had prided itself on the stability of a two-party parliamentary system since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Common Market referendum of 1975 had been the first nationwide referendum in British history, and portentously, a referendum on whether to continue membership in an institution characterized by an extreme form of non-populist rule, decision-making by “faceless bureaucrats.” The 1975 referendum was held as a result of pressure by the Left wing of the Labour Party which was opposed to the Labour government’s acceptance of membership in the Common Market (the Union repeatedly changes its name in accordance with its latest admitted aims), which it had inherited from the outgoing Conservatives. The then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, had signed the Treaty of Rome with a political legitimacy for his action obtained by majority vote in Parliament. Opponents of the referendum (all pro-Marketers) alleged that the succeeding Labour government used the referendum option cynically to prevent a split in the Labour Party over membership, and by doing so, breaking with the tradition that political decisions are solely based on the wishes of a majority of MPs.

A referendum invites, even encourages, political alliances of convenience. In Britain, joining the Common Market was carried out by the Prime Minister using his parliamentary majority to force through an act of Parliament of momentous importance. It was only the insistence of the Labour Party’s highly eloquent spokesman, Tony Benn, Minister for Trade and Industry in the successor Labour government, which forced the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, to agree to a referendum. However, the United Kingdom European Communities referendum of 1975 resulted in a heavy defeat for the No campaign. Support for leaving the Common Market came overwhelmingly out of Labour heartlands. Conservatives of all kinds voted in their millions for Yes. Tony Benn had made his case to party Left-wingers to leave the Common Market, the case being based on the fact that a majority of Labour Party members (unlike the leadership) were opposed to British membership, but as he was unable to appeal to Right-wingers and was attacked by all the media (with the unhelpful exception of the pro-Soviet Morning Star!), Benn’s cause was foredoomed.

In the second referendum, the situation was reversed; it was the challenge of Right-wing maverick Nigel Farage, and the fear of a split in the Conservative Party, which forced a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, to hold a referendum. Now it was Conservatives in their millions who were sure to vote for Leave, and the question was whether socialists in the north of England would vote in sufficiently large numbers for Remain, as its leadership urged them to do, or whether enough would vote with the Conservatives for Leave to bring about a majority for Leave. In the event, millions of Labour supporters voted Leave despite the advice of party and union spokesmen to vote Remain, and the coming together of Right and Left resulted in the stupendous and unexpected national majority vote to leave the European Union.

The lesson should be clear: if any movement or pressure group allows itself to divide along party political lines, it will not be able to win its case. In the example of the British referendum, with the non-white vote in majority for Remain, with the under-25 majority for Remain, with Scotland’s majority for Remain, with the financially comfortable in the majority for Remain, the only hope for “leavers” was to ignore the Right-Left divisions in their camp and hold fast to their cause in an alliance of necessity. This is what they did, and only in this way could Leave score its unexpected victory. Similarly, in the 2016 American presidential election, without the support of Democrat blue-collar workers, Republican Trump supporters could not have carried enough states to take their candidate to the presidency.

As well as in the use of referenda, changes in party leadership selection is also indicative of a shift towards a less expert-driven, hierarchical approach toward political decision-making in Britain, tending towards greater acknowledgment of the immediate wishes of a majority of voters on individual issues. A shift is taking place in Britain, and not only Britain, from party-driven elections to alliances-driven, populist, personality-driven elections. In 1998 the Conservative Party, and in 2014 the Labour Party, changed party membership rules in a significantly “populist” direction characteristic of American politics but not practiced before in Britain. Previously, the right to elect a leader was confined, in the case of the Conservative Party, to members of Parliament, and in the case of Labour, to a complicated system of voting which gave trade unions a third of the vote, constituency parties a third, and Labour MPs another third; but now both major parties operate a “one member, one vote” system of choosing their leader, which increases the power of the party base and rewards party membership at the expense of traditional bodies which used to dominate and steer the major parties.

Direct forms of political decision-making had already been well established in the way that local party constituency organizations choose their candidates for parliament, namely by local selection rather than having a central party association do the job for them. Furthermore, and partly for this reason, it has always been expected of parliamentary candidates that they go “knocking on doors” at election time: in other words, campaigning from house to house for votes. British politics, like American politics, tends to have a very personal note to it; personal accountability is considered important, and significantly, a persistent Leave critique of the EU was of its anonymity and lack of accountability, of its “shadowy,” “unknown” decision-makers; its “democracy deficit.”

This is the background needed to understand the tense situation in British politics today. The shock of the referendum followed another comparable shock, namely the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a dedicated socialist and admirer of Castro and Hugo Chávez, to the leadership of the Labour Party. This would not have been possible without the change in leadership election rules already mentioned. Against the express wishes of Labour Party stalwarts, former ministers and prime ministers, and almost the entire parliamentary Labour Party, the membership of the Labour Party chose Corbyn as their leader in 2015. An attempt was made by party moderates and Remainers to oust Corbyn, resulting in a second leadership contest in 2016, firstly with an attempt to disqualify Corbyn from even taking part on the grounds that he did not have the support of enough MPs. This procedural attempt to unseat Corbyn failed, and in the second leadership election, Corbyn was reelected by party members with a still higher majority.

No leader of any major political party in Britain was in favor of leaving the EU. It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this slap in the face for one-worlders, for the EU is a major stepping stone on the way to the erection of a planned New World Order. The British referendum of 2016 was not foreseen in this plan, and the result of the referendum still less so! Within three days of the results becoming known, the conspiracy to remove Jeremy Corbyn, backed by an alliance of moderate Labour members and anti-Brexiters, began. It may seem surprising that so much importance has been and is attached by one-worlders to the removal of a man who is himself a happy proponent of one-world policies. Corbyn had campaigned (albeit with “inadequate enthusiasm,” according to ardent Remainers) for a Remain vote in the referendum, and he welcomes Third World refugees to Britain and considers racism to be a shocking crime.

Corbyn, however, is honest. For example, he has declared that he will abide by the referendum result and appears to mean what he says. This has earned him powerful enemies. There have been several referenda against European unity in Europe which Brussels has managed to ignore or circumnavigate in one way or another by manipulating national politicians to do the bidding of the EU and undo the results. To date, Corbyn has not played ball in this way. Such temerity from a leading politician, and a Left-wing politician at that, is practically unheard of and will not be forgiven. Acknowledgment of the referendum result against the wishes of the EU Commission and Council of Ministers is not what is expected of the leader of the British Labour Party.

Then, on April 18, 2017, nearly a year after the referendum, came the Prime Minister’s decision to hold an election. This bizarre step, which made no sense to any commentator I read, looked like a long-time plan to undermine the apparently steadfast promise of leading British politicians to “listen to the people” and negotiate Britain’s departure from the European Union. Theresa May’s announcement that she was calling a general election for June 8 broke her own assurance that she would not call an election before 2020. By law, she needed the agreement of two-thirds of the MPs to agree to such a move, which she easily obtained, Jeremy Corbyn stating that despite highly unfavorable opinion polls, he “welcomed the opportunity” to fight her.

The least one can say is that the Prime Minister had been badly advised. Her official explanation was that she was seeking a “strong as possible mandate” for the upcoming Brexit negotiations; the popular view was that she was taking advantage of a Conservative lead over Labour in the polls of up to twenty percent to secure a huge majority and perhaps destroy a Labour Party fractured by both Brexit and a contentious far-Left leader. I wonder, too, if the election call was not part of a long-term plan in which Theresa May would have been an instrument to replace Conservative with Labour in a desperate (the word is no exaggeration) attempt to overturn the referendum decision. Such a plan would only work if the Labour leader were malleable about Brexit. But in February, Corbyn had already decided to support the move to trigger Article 50, which can be described as the countdown mechanism (of two years) to leave the EU.

In the election campaign, voters were presented with the paradoxical spectacle of the political leader who had called the election acting as though she was unprepared and an opposition supposedly surprised acting confidently and as though it had expected the election. The Conservatives lost thirteen seats and Labour gained thirty, a result which deprived the government of an absolute majority. UKIP support plummeted from over ten percent of the vote to under two percent. The results offered no sign of a pro-EU resurgence, either. The pro-EU Liberal Democrats won just twelve seats, an increase of four, but with almost no change in their share of the vote. The ex-Deputy Prime Minister and champion of a Remain alliance, Nick Clegg, even lost his seat, and the pro-EU SNP lost twenty-one seats. The Conservatives were only able to form a government with the support of the Northern Loyalist DUP. Post-referendum, British politics seem to have returned to the two-party system which prevailed before Britain joined the Common Market in 1973.

Impervious to criticism and attack, Jeremy Corbyn has now dismissed three front benchers (possible future ministers) for supporting a pro-Remain motion in the House of Commons and a fourth member of his team has resigned over the Labour leadership’s acceptance of Brexit. Corbyn’s rise to power and his style of campaigning bears remarkable similarities to those of Donald Trump. Like Trump, he has positioned himself as an “anti-establishment” politician who “tells it like it is” and whose rise to party leadership appalls party traditionalists.

The change in the notion of legitimacy has led to the momentous decision by a British government to quit the EU on the basis of a referendum result. Apart from the Left-Right divide, Britain is now split between those who believe that the ultimate policy decision-maker must be the individual voter and those who hold to a system in which, in the name of stability and moderation, experts and representatives have ultimate precedence in decision-making over the wishes of those who elect them.

The anger in the highest circles of business and finance at the referendum result and the dogged insistence of British politicians to implement that result must be very great. I do not think that Jeremy Corbyn realizes that by taking the referendum result seriously, he has made himself a target. I predict that the many young voters who have responded energetically to his populist appeal and brought membership levels of the Labour Party to around half a million will be subverted to reject Corbyn because he is “betraying” them over Brexit. The Brexit result can only be described in one word, so far as the New World Order is concerned: unacceptable. Make no mistake: Brexit is more than Brexit. The elite cannot allow it to be implemented. After all, if people are allowed to make momentous decisions by simple majority voting against the advice of their betters, whatever might they vote on next?