Judging by the liveliness of social media platforms well into the night, as 6 January rolled into 7 January on the European side of the Atlantic, half the UK was glued to CNN – watching agog as insurrectionists invaded government offices in Washington D.C. They stormed the Capitol building, the heart of American democracy, equipped with guns, improvised explosive devices and kit to immobilise hostages. Leaving a trail of destruction, they flaunted their disrespect in selfies taken with ‘trophies’, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern. Indeed, it seems the insurrectionists particularly targeted anything associated with female politicians. Display cases highlighting their achievements were trashed. Meanwhile both male and female representatives, from both sides of the partisan divide, took cover in offices until they could be rushed to safety. Five people, including a policeman, lost their lives.
There doesn’t appear to be a name for this historic occasion yet, so let’s go with ‘Dark Wednesday’ – until somebody comes up with something better. I call it an insurrection advisedly, because it was no spontaneous occurrence. On 19 December 2020 Trump promised a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”. He tweeted about the occasion three more times on 27 and 30 December, then again on New Year’s Day 2021. Worse, he had been whipping up his base for months, long before the presidential election, telling them the Democrats would cheat and steal the election. When he eventually did lose, in what turned out to be one of the cleanest and best run elections in US history, he refused to concede and launched a campaign of malicious court cases.
This was nothing less than an all-out attack on American democracy. Of course, American democracy has been under assault since day one of the Trump presidency. Like Boris Johnson in this country, Trump surrounded himself with incompetent sycophants whose only qualifications were personal loyalty to him and generous donations to his cause. He created the equivalent of a royal court, elevating members of his family to be his principal courtiers. He even tried to create a dynasty, with his bid to replace Mike Pence on the 2020 presidential ticket with his daughter Ivanka. As to all the law-breaking and collusion with hostile powers, there is still much more to come out before we have a clear picture of just how deep and how far the corruption went. Donald Trump has now secured his place in the panoply of Fascist Dictators.
What shocked me most about the British reaction to all this was the attempt by some of the nastier ‘Right-Whingers’ to draw a false equivalence between Trump’s insurrectionists and Remainers. It was the usual suspects. Liz Truss’s BFF Mark Littlewood, Director of the US-funded Institute of Economic Affairs, an ultra-right-wing think tank, spewed, “Some Trump supporters behaving even more absurdly than the lunatic fringe of British Remainers.” Charlotte Gill, darling pundit of those to the right of UKIP, quote-tweeted Caroline Lucas MP, spouting “People who tried to overturn the referendum result DO NOT get to lecture on democracy. Appalling.” Meanwhile minor Tory politicians on the far right of the BluKIP spectrum got in on the act, including Andrew Davies, leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Senedd, who quote-tweeted Keir Starmer, spitting, “To be honest [sic] I’m not sure you’re in the strongest position right now given you campaigned to overturn democracy and the will of the people.” This false narrative was then taken up by social media trolls.
Sadly, unscrupulous Brexiters like the three mentioned above have had some success in peddling their Trumpist definition of democracy. It is a self-serving definition that pretends any opposition is ‘undemocratic’ and ‘illegitimate’. It is one in which ‘loser’s consent’ has been redefined as rolling over and remaining silent, no matter what insults and indignities the winners inflict. They have used every means possible, with the support of a supine press, to gaslight people into accepting this new, narrow, authoritarian definition of democracy.
The result is there are now people who genuinely believe that democracy comes down to a single vote on one day in history, and that to try to re-visit it in any way, or even to oppose the policies that stem from it, is to defy ‘the will of the people’. It adds another dimension to their sense of grievance and helps to explain ‘sore winner’ syndrome, where leaders on the winning side are unhappy, never satisfied and nasty to those who don’t share their views – and encourage their followers to emulate them.
Let’s examine these false claims:
Have Remainers ever stormed the Houses of Parliament, planted bombs, trashed the fixtures and fittings, and killed anyone? No. That definition better fits the followers of Brexit-backing Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), who paraded around London carrying gallows and throwing Nazi salutes, engaged the police in pitch battles, and vandalised the property of Remainers. One of their number even murdered a sitting member of Parliament, the much-missed Jo Cox. On the contrary, Remainers have paraded through London and other cities on several occasions, and there were never any incidents. Even on those occasions when there were more than a million marching, there were no arrests.
Can a ‘democratic vote’ be overturned? No. It can be repealed or superseded by another ‘democratic vote’, but not ‘overturned’ in the sense of being set aside by illegitimate or undemocratic means. To pretend otherwise is to talk down our democracy and create an unfounded fear that people can be ‘cheated’ out of something they’ve voted for. However, just because something has been voted for once, it doesn’t mean it is cast in stone and should stand for all time. There is nothing inherently insulting in asking the British people’s opinion on something more than once, especially if in the intervening time new information emerges that might change minds. (In France, for example, it is common practice to have two rounds of voting. People get their protest vote off their chest in the first round, and then vote seriously in the next.)
There is also no prescribed time-limit between votes on the same issue, other than the convention that government may not lay the same issue before parliament more than once in the session (to avoid wasting parliament’s time with lost causes, or government abusing and bullying parliament). The idea that the country must wait 45 years for another vote on EU membership is Brexity wishful thinking. It can take place as soon as there is a groundswell of support for the proposition and a political party brave enough to defy our Brexit-backing press barons.
Brexiters used to know all this, as Nigel Farage revealed when he told the Daily Mirror that it would be ‘unfinished business’, if the result of the European referendum was 48-52 in favour of Remain. Dominic Raab said something similar to Parliament’s House magazine, that if Leave were to lose in 2016, they would set the issue aside for a while, but then revisit it, hopefully around the time of the 2020 election (which the previous one having been held in 2015, was the date of the next scheduled election). Indeed, many leading Brexiters had spoken of a second referendum when they thought it would be to their benefit, but rushed to condemn it and brand it as anti-democratic when it might not. One cannot escape the feeling that they have a very ‘one rule for us’ approach to democracy, as in so many other policy areas.
Is opposing a policy, even one that has majority support, defying the ‘will of the people’ and ‘anti-democratic’? No. In a true democracy there is a right of dissent. If there is no right of dissent, you are no longer in a democracy, but in some form of dictatorship. The Hegelian Dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis lies at the foundation of our democracy – systematic reasoning, exposition or argument that juxtaposes opposed or contradictory ideas and seeks to resolve their conflict. Think of the antithesis phase as feedback or critique. It is wise to include it, because opposition makes us stronger, or in the political sphere, it leads to more inclusive policies and better-drafted laws.
Arguably, Brexiters banging on about ‘the will of the people’ made compromise impossible. It paved the way for the notion that there was only one true Brexit, and that was a Brexit that satisfied only a minority of those who voted Leave, while pleasing nobody in the Remainer or undecided camps. Use of the term ‘the will of the people’ was also disturbing for anyone who has studied history, harking back to the Nazi propaganda expert Josef Goebbels who defined ‘the will of the people’ as ‘the will of the government’ (Geneva, 28 September 1933).
That Leave voters were encouraged to think this way is not in doubt, and David Cameron must take a large part of the blame for this misconception. He made a referendum that was advisory in law appear to many to be binding because of his foolish promise. Think about it for a moment. Who wants to live in a country where a law could be overturned by a glib promise made by a politician at the dispatch box in the Commons, or on a leaflet posted through your letterbox? Don’t forget that to become law, a bill has to go through three rounds of debate, amendment and voting in the Commons; go to the Lords for further debate, amendment and voting; possibly go back to the Commons for further scrutiny and another vote, and only then, if it passes a final vote, is it sent to the Queen for royal assent.
Did MPs who opposed Brexit set themselves against ‘the people’ and behave in a way that was ‘anti-democratic’? No. MPs are representatives not delegates. This is an important distinction, as it means they must use their experience and intellectual faculties to work out what’s best, rather than merely doing what’s popular. They have a duty of care to ALL their constituents, not just those who voted for them, or who agree with them. Where there are conflicting interests, so that it is not possible to act in the interests of all constituents, MPs must give proper consideration to possibilities for compromise.
Brexiter politicians and their lackey newspapers pushed a very dangerous myth throughout 2018 and 2019, and again in December 2020, that if government obtained a deal, it was MPs’ duty to vote for it. No. If MPs did that, it would mean parliament was nothing more than a rubber stamp to give the illusion of democracy. It was MPs’ duty to scrutinise it and only vote for it if it was a good deal. Yet the press and unscrupulous MPs managed to convince a significant proportion of the public otherwise. The result was epic trolling of, and even the sending of death-threats to, those MPs pointing out that what was being delivered was light-years away from what was promised, and harmful to the national interest.
Despite this, Theresa May’s deal was voted down three times, because no faction was happy with it. Curiously only the Remain faction is blamed for its failure, even though most Tory Remainer MPs voted for it. The defeat gave the lie to the false narrative concerning MPs’ duty having been quashed. It came back with a vengeance in December 2020, enabling the democratic outrage of government allowing only one day of debate for a 1,200-page treaty released less than a week before. Boris Johnson’s government avoided proper scrutiny of what is turning out to be a very problematic deal, to the detriment of democracy.
Do Brexiter MPs, donors and pundits practice what they preach? No. From the moment we joined what was then the Common Market, but which Edward Heath’s government had made clear to voters would eventually become the European Union, there was a vociferous minority opposed to it. Back then, they were known as the ‘Anti-Marketeers’ and were led by Enoch Powell on the right and Tony Benn on the left. They pushed and pushed for a referendum, losing several votes along the way. Did they ever give up? No.
Eventually, the Anti-Marketeers won the argument on holding a referendum on membership in 1975 but were defeated in it, by 67 to 33 per cent. Did they accept it and quietly slip away, never to be heard from again? No. They carried on fighting for their beliefs. By so doing, were they considered to have withheld ‘losers consent’ to the political process? No. There appears to have been a more mature appreciation of the rôle of opposition in politics back then. Were they labelled anti-democratic, traitors, moaners? No. They were politely referred to as ‘Eurosceptics’, their dissent was tolerated and they were free to advance their argument by all democratic means available to them.
Why is it, then, that some Brexiters are now denying the same democratic courtesies to the pro-EU camp? Sadly, they have become infected with Trumpism, which borrows the language of democracy, but adopts the actions of dictatorship. Smearing your opponents, painting them as unpatriotic and characterising their actions as elitist, illegitimate and treasonous are all core components of Trump’s playbook. The Tory party’s attempts to distance itself from Donald Trump, now that he has fallen, look particularly ridiculous in light of their continued use of his methods.
Democracy is in danger in this country. Brexit and a nationalist-populist government have highlighted just how fragile it is. Our politicians have failed us by not standing up to the advance of a Trumpist political culture. We have no choice but to put our faith into civic society to turn the tide against the advance of authoritarianism and the extinction of pluralism in politics. The way to do that is to continue to explain to people what democracy is, and why putting the political process above partisan advantage is important to all.
We can do this by joining movements that seek to protect our democracy, like Make Votes Matter, for example, and by encouraging friends and family to avoid a ‘my party right or wrong’ mentality. We must constantly ask ourselves, ‘Would I approve if a politician I dislike were granted this power, or behaved in this way, or spoke like that?’ If the answer to that question is ever ‘no’, then it is not right for any politician, even those we like or who are delivering something we want. It is time to put the integrity back into British democracy.
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