The betrayal of Brexit

Brendan O'Neill
Jun 18, 2017 · 5 min read
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The Australian, 17 June 2017

Britain is in the grip of a counter-revolution. We may look to outsiders like a largely peaceful, politically normal nation, as far from a banana republic as you can get. But something’s stirring under the surface. Something dark. Something anti-democratic.

Let’s call it the great betrayal of Brexit.

In a week’s time, on June 23, it will be one year since 17.4 million Britons, me included, voted to the leave the EU.

More Brits voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything. It’s the loudest, most populous cry in the entire history of our nation. Millions of us marched to the ballot box and made our democratic statement clearly and confidently: we should withdraw from Brussels and bring our lawmaking back under our democratic control.

Brexitphobes, angry Remainers in the media and political class, instantly branded Brexit the wail of a racist throng keen to kick out foreigners and make Britain as white and aloof as it was 100 years ago.

Rubbish. Brexit was in keeping with Britain’s best democratic traditions. In the nationwide Ashcroft Polls conducted just after this ballot box quake shook our political palaces and wiped the smirks off the faces of technocrats everywhere, the most common reason people gave for voting Brexit was because they believed in “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.

In short, this was a cry for democracy. It echoed the words of John Lilburne, one of the greatest agitators in the English civil war of the 1640s that established parliamentary democracy over autocratic monarchy.

“Unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish and tyrannical it is for any man whatsoever to appropriate and assume unto himself a power, authority and jurisdiction to rule, govern or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent,” said Lilburne. And so did we Brexiteers, though perhaps not in such colourful lingo. Our mass vote was against a European Commission that can make laws that affect our lives, and the lives of 500 million other Europeans, yet over which we have no democratic control. Like Lilburne we raged, though with ballots, not swords, against an institution that reigns without our free consent.

Our vote devastated the establishment. Virtually all of it had begged us not to choose Brexit. Seventy-three per cent of MPs wanted to Remain. So did 70 per cent of big business leaders. A whopping 90 per cent of the academy – our alleged intellectual betters – wanted Remain. And we defied them all. We revolted. This was arguably the first time in the history of Britons getting the vote that we used it not simply to reject a particular party but to reject the entire establishment, to snub their overtures, to say: “You know what? We know better than you.” And they will never forgive us for that.

No sooner had the referendum result been announced than irate Remainers were trying to stop Brexit. Rich people launched legal challenges against it, claiming referendum results were not constitutionally binding in Britain. Richard Branson funded Remain campaigns. Tony Blair came back to political life, with the aim, in the words of one report, “to save Britain from itself”. We feckless plebs require re-education.

The liberal press went to town on Brexit. It is the handiwork of “low-information people”, snooty hacks cried. Foreign Policy magazine summed up the return of nasty, borderline Nietzschean elitism to mainstream political debate with its anti-Brexit headline published five days after the referendum: “It’s time for the elite to rise up against the ignorant masses.”

And it did. And still is. We’re living through a revolt of the elites. And their revolt, their urge to overturn our low-information demand, has intensified since the general election earlier this month. Politicos are everywhere arguing that the election proved that Britain has lost its appetite for “hard Brexit” and now we need a “soft Brexit” – a weakened, diluted, sensible Brexit, designed by them, of course, rather than by fact-lite riffraff like us.

But the idea that the general election represented a turn against Brexit is bunkum. The two parties that explicitly stood on an anti-Brexit ticket – the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party – did pretty badly. The Lib Dems lost 100,000 votes compared with their showing in the 2015 general election. And the SNP got pummelled. It lost 21 seats and 500,000 votes. The Brexit-bashers were given a bloody nose. The two parties that promise, at least in their manifestos, to uphold Brexit, the Tories and Labour, got 82.4 per cent of the vote.

Yet everyone is reading the last rites of “hard Brexit”. Why? Because Theresa May failed to get the huge majority she said she needed to be in a strong position in the Brexit negotiations with EU officials.

She didn’t even get enough seats to form a government. Her party won 318 seats, eight short of the required 326, meaning she’s going into partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party.

The revolting elite is using May’s misfortune to try to finish off Brexit. And, tragically, it might be successful. May is now surrounded by ministers, referred to by the Remainer media as “cabinet sensibles”, urging her to soften Brexit.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being looked on as a potential “softener” of Brexit. The New European, the newspaper of the pro-EU upper middle classes, features him on its front page this week under the headline: “Will Super Jez Stop Brexit?” What a weird position Corbyn has found himself in. He poses as a radical, a throwback to the edgier politics of the 1970s, yet now he’s being invited to lead the elite revolt against the genuinely radical cry of Brexit. Corbyn the supposed revolutionary soon could find himself in the role of Britain’s chief counter-revolutionary.

All this opportunistic talk of soft Brexit is the worst kind of euphemism. Soft Brexit is a slippery, propagandistic phrase, a straight-up Orwellian expression designed to make it look like Brexit still will happen when the real aim is to ensure that it doesn’t. Soft Brexit means staying in the Single Market and possibly even the European Court of Justice, two of the key institutions that allow the EU to impose rules and regulations on a nation without its people’s consent.

So soft Brexit utterly reneges on the thing we voted for: the “principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Soft Brexit is not Brexit; soft Brexit is the betrayal of Brexit.

One year on from the Brexit revolt, we face a very serious situation in Britain. Efforts are afoot to water down, and in essence destroy, the greatest democratic mandate Britons have delivered. There is more at stake now than simply leaving the EU. Democracy itself, the long-fought-for ideal that ordinary people should shape the destiny of their nation, is under threat.

If Brexit is “softened” – that is, betrayed – then democracy in Britain will be bruised possibly beyond repair. The people will receive the message that we don’t matter. We’re too stupid to matter. The softening of Brexit will be one of the most regressive and politically destructive things to have happened in this country in decades.

This is my column from The Australian, 17 June 2017.

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