Brexit’s erosive effect on British democracy continues.
Consider this recent story in The Telegraph, which takes the entire civil service to task for refusing to make Britain’s exit from the European Union a success.
The reality is that Britain’s civil servants are among the world’s most capable and that leaving the EU is going to be painful. There is no way to make Brexit a “success” by any objective measure.
As recently as a few months ago, serious Brexiteers recognized as much. They admitted that leaving the EU would have a negative effect on the economy, at least in the short term. But, they argued, independence from Brussels would make up for it in spirit.
Now even such admissions are taboo in Euroskeptic circles and civil servants who dare state the obvious are considered traitors to the cause.
Before the referendum, I implored proponents of Brexit to stop disparaging their national institutions. They smeared everyone from the governor of the Bank of England to the head of the National Health Service for cautioning against leaving the EU.
I wasn’t the only one who worried. The Financial Times pointed out the hypocrisy of calling into doubt the legitimacy of the very British institutions the Brexiteers proposed to empower at Brussels’ expense.
They have shown no magnanimity in victory.
The will of “the people”
George Eaton reports for the New Statesman that reverence for Britain’s unwritten constitution has given way to a professed loyalty to “the people” (which, of course, excludes the 48 percent who voted against Brexit).
Consider this outrageous headline in the Daily Mail from last year, when judges ruled — in what should have been an uncontroversial decision — that Parliament must approve Brexit before it can happen. The tabloid called them “enemies of the people”.
The will of “the people” is always invoked when democratic and republican institutions stand in their way of strongmen.
It used to be that Britain was immune from such authoritarian impulses. Brexit has unleashed something quite dangerous.
Dear Mr. Ottens,
I have been following your excellent writings in numerous media outlets. This last piece is kind a surprise for me. Coming from an ex-communist country where a wide range of illegal, unjust even violent actions were carried out in “the name of the people” I cannot support more the actual population based referendum.
It may be an obvious exaggeration to state it here in a comment, but it is not the “Brexit [that] has unleashed something quite dangerous.” It is the tendency of the ruling european consensus to label everything from friendly ciriticism to simple questions about its ideas as “strong man”, “populist” and “authoritarian”.
The implied idea of closed or limited democracy, where important decisions cannot be left to the “uneducated masses” or “deplorables” is frightenting. Acting on behalf of the people, yet forcibly (be it oral or physical) silencing them when going against the will of an unelected leadership is exactly the way how dictatorships started in soviet occupied Eastern Europe.
“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Santaya
Balint Somkuti, PhD
Thank you for your comment, Balint, and for reading the Atlantic Sentinel!
Let me start where we agree: It’s wrong to label any and all criticism of mainstream, consensus politics as “strongman” or “authoritarian”. When writing about the issue of immigration, for example, I’ve made the argument that leaders ought to take such concerns seriously and not dismiss doubts about immigration as necessarily xenophobic.
But I also believe in calling a spade a spade. I see an authoritarian streak reasserting itself across Western countries and I don’t believe it helps anyone to obfuscate the issue and use weasel words.
These references to the will of “the people” are an example. This is invoked, as I argue in the article, when democratic and republican institutions, as well as established norms, stand in the way of a certain political project.
Strongmen and tyrants always claim to represent and act on behalf of “the people”. But there never is such a thing. At best, they are supported by a majority.
We’re a long way from tyranny, obviously, but I do worry that things are moving in the wrong direction.
Democracy is not the same as majoritarianism. The people decide, yes, but we have parliaments to channel the popular will and laws and courts to act as a check and prevent a tyranny of the majority. Disparaging those institutions is dangerous. That, it seems to me, is the history we’re doomed to repeat if we don’t learn anything.
Nick, I hope you dont mind me answering in the same informal manner.
I really would not like to go into limitless theoretical discussions about definitions, hairsplitting and mincing of words and stuff in the Frankfurt school manner until all words lose their meaning.
All I want to say is that 25 years after the “end of history” a significant portion of the western hemisphere’s population, maybe the majority, feels the need for a change. For good or bad.
And if a people feel the need for a change the elite better adapt. Remember Louis XVI and the Romanovs, or even the Habsburgs.
I have lived in a system where certain issues were not be raised, certain question were not be asked. You speak about the “tyranny of the majority”, but what about the tyranny of the minority? You just cannot say it is a democracy until you all do as I tell you. Not anymore.
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