How not/to heal Brexit divisions

European Union and British Union flag flying against Big Ben in London, England (Photograph © Tomas Marek | Dreamstime.com)

Following up on a piece by Abi Wilkinson that criticizes contempt and ignorance towards Leave voters by Remainers, Chuka Umunna has published a set of remarks discussing his reasons for voting in favour of the Article 50 Bill, in which he calls for the need “to heal the divisions and find common cause with our fellow citizens wherever they are”.

Umunna claims we must “respect the national result of the referendum” and to not “pretend away” this fact: we cannot, he says, “turn the clock back and stop that national result taking [sic] affect.” He argues that ignoring the result would exacerbate divisions, and that if we do not “respect national polls in these circumstances and listen to one another” we may as well “pack up and go home and leave it to those actively wanting to sow the seeds of division and the hate peddlers.”

There are fundamental problems with Umunna’s position. I propose to examine them, not because I mean to be a sower of division or a hate peddler or a time-waster, but for two more modest reasons. First, I think Umunna, and other MPs who took a similar stance to him on the Article 50 Bill — voting yes to it while purporting to find the Remain position more compelling—have done more damage to Britain than they are yet willing to admit. Second, the truth still matters, however inconvenient it might be.

The first major problem concerns the fact about the fact of the referendum result. As I have argued elsewhere, respecting the fact of the referendum result simply does not equate to any requirement concerning how Parliament should act in response to the fact of the result. This is because the EU Referendum Act of 2015 was silent on next steps following the referendum; both this legislation and the Supreme Court decision clearly showed that any decision on the issue of leaving the EU was a matter for Parliament, and had always been so. The result of the non-binding referendum therefore decided nothing legally. Umunna himself tacitly admits this when he describes the referendum as a “national poll.” I can quite see why many MPs might prefer to perpetuate the myth that the referendum result was a decision — I am sure it would make life less uncomfortable for them — but it’s a myth all the same.

Added to this, the fact of the result — despite much noise from MPs including Umunna on this point — decided nothing politically. The UK is a representative democracy; our elected MPs have a duty to make decisions in the national interest. They also, by virtue of their duty, had the opportunity to craft political narrative concerning the result. Many of the 114 who voted against the Article 50 Bill did a sterling job of providing counter-narratives to the Government’s tired catch-all appeal to the ‘will of the people’ and the alleged opposition’s appeal to very odd version of the concept of democracy (odd because it confused direct with representative democracy). It was not clear what the national interest in fact was following the referendum result. Substantive examination of the situation and the likely consequences of leaving the EU, via detailed and professional information-gathering, evidence assessment, free debate, and voting, was needed.

Yet — and this is the important point — that did not happen. The Government had to be taken to court in order for there to be any Parliamentary involvement at all; and the subsequent publication of a breathtakingly short Article 50 Bill and a tight schedule for debate left no room for proper Parliamentary process to occur. As Hilary Benn pointed out in a Commons speech, no Government documents examining the consequences of leaving the EU were published prior to voting on the Article 50 Bill. Benn describes this situation as “extraordinary;” I’d describe it as undemocratic, assuming that democracy in the UK involves a more-than-mere-lip-service commitment to Parliamentary process, and that such process should have some connection to, you know, evidence and facts and suchlike things. And that’s before the process of voting failed to secure any amendments to the Bill, including the possibility of Parliament having some way to address possible and legitimate concerns that may arise at the end of the negotiation process.

498 members of the House of Commons voted to make themselves powerless. They voted to make it impossible for them to protect their constituents’ interests (so much for their ‘special duty’). They voted to go along with whatever the Government wanted, regardless of whether whatever that turns out to be truly is in the national interest. They voted for this without even knowing anything resembling substantive information about the practical consequences of leaving the EU or about the Government’s plans. And they voted for this when they had a democratic, politically plausible, alternative. The decision is not on the public. It’s on MPs, whether they like that or not. The least they could do is be honest about it.

Umunna challenges anyone reading his remarks to consider what they are doing to make “common cause on how we build a better Britain.” Appealing to Wilkinson’s criticisms of privileged Remainers “doubling down” on their ignorance by writing off “half the population”, Umunna urges us to “heal the divisions in society.” This raises the second major problem with his position. Umunna’s call for healing of divisions and for building of a better Britain are undermined by his & others’ voting for the Article 50 Bill once it was clear that no amendments would be attached to it, including an amendment clearly enabling a choice to remain in the EU — or at least to return to the public for another “poll” on the issue. Whether they meant to or not, they wrote off the view of roughly half of the population able to vote, and this has hardly helped with the problem of division. Calls like Umunna’s, for the healing of divisions to begin, are being made on the back of the tattered remnants of the rights of all UK citizens — not to mention a good few million EU citizens — regardless of whether they voted to Leave or to Remain, or whether they even voted in the EU referendum at all. Working on healing divisions needs to begin with acknowledgement of this. Without it, those who were denied a vote, and those who voted to Remain, are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate and unjust burden. We are being asked to be silent while accepting the erosion of our fundamental rights as citizens. Umunna is quite right to point out that nobody should be abusing or victimizing anyone in person or online. Yet we should be concerned about whether changing the tone of the debate might silence people who are in real distress and pain, especially if tone-policing is used by the powerful to silence the less powerful and/or powerless. A lot of people feel powerless just now. We shouldn’t forget why.

I was disappointed by the result of the referendum, but I felt encouraged when I reminded myself that there would be a substantive Parliamentary process through which MPs would determine the best course for the nation. Perhaps, I said to myself, a reasonable compromise position would emerge from that process, one that people could get behind. Surely, I told myself, no MPs would vote against their own purpose as an MP, never mind national interest. The voting on 6–8 February, combined with the total lack of information from the Government prior to February 8 and the total lack of respect shown to the democratic process, shattered these illusions. I am more angry now than I was on hearing the result of the referendum.

What is happening in the UK now is deeply troubling to those who entertain thoughts of themselves as being democrats. It’s plain wrong to suggest that the mere fact of the referendum result was a decision, and that nothing can or should ever challenge it. It’s irresponsible for any of the 498 MPs to make this claim when we all know that they could quite easily have acted differently. It’s unfair to pretend that the healing of divisions can be done in the absence of acknowledgement of the fundamental facts about our democracy and the actual place of the EU referendum within it. It’s unjust to imagine that anyone who challenges the actions of the 498 MPs who voted in favour of passing the Article 50 Bill unamended is somehow misguided: democracy thrives on debate (or at least, it should).

I’m not remoaning. I’m remonstrating.

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B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Philosopher, bioethicist, comparatist. Tweeting about philosophy, politics, in a personal capacity. #DurhamUniversity & #DurhamCastle alumna.

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Rebecca Bamford

Rebecca Bamford

B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Philosopher, bioethicist, comparatist. Tweeting about philosophy, politics, in a personal capacity. #DurhamUniversity & #DurhamCastle alumna.

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