Brexit and the myth of popular democracy

The UK’s vote on leaving the European Union has been grossly misunderstood as an expression of popular democracy. Whilst popular democracy celebrates the triumph of the popular will through plebiscites — and it is an appealing model, considered something of a best practice approach in deepening citizen participation- the conduct of the Brexit referendum has raised serious questions about whether there was sufficient information for the populace to be able to make an informed choice about the question at hand. Informed consent is the essential element to a healthy functioning democratic debate, and it was missing in this case.

So the idea that Brexit is the enlightened self-interest of the British people is a delusion. In truth, Brexit wasn’t really demanded by the people. It was offered at an opportune moment by the establishment. It was the Tories who called a referendum, the Tories and their friends in the hard-right media engineered Brexit propaganda, it is the Tories will exploit Brexit to drive down living and working conditions, and it will be them who ask us to blame our neighbours for their mistakes. Voters were misled in to thinking Brexit was a vote against the establishment; it was only a vote of confidence in its lies.

The Brexit campaign hardly encouraged full investigation and comprehensive research of the facts, and showed no commitment to supporting claims through research and statistics. Instead, campaigning was tainted by a bitter and toxic tone which, in the case of Leave, drove and fuelled an apoplectic, irrational mistrust of foreigners and foreign institutions. It ramped up the racist rhetoric and preyed on people’s paranoia, appealing to our worst instincts.

For a decision to be truly democratic and an expression of the popular will it has to be informed by deliberation between the public, but Theresa May has made it crystal clear that we are not going to be sitting at the table during the Brexit negotiations. It is her government that are drawing up the terms and conditions, and you can be sure that they will destroy the soul and substance of our most cherished institutions by exploiting Brexit to make further inroads to the wholesale privatization of our public utilities.

If there is one thing we know from Brexit, it is crystal clear that there is a serious disconnect between the people and the decision-makers in our society. The political establishment has failed to provide solutions to a whole range of working class problems. But they have chosen to promote a narrative which scapegoats immigrants instead of focusing on changing the political choices which have created the crises in which people now live.

Perhaps the vote to Leave was a simple reflection of the fact people feel the EU doesn’t represent their concerns, that the EU puts issues that matter to the people in the UK on the back-burner, and maybe they were right. But people are naïve to have assumed our government will put the issues that matter to them at the heart of Brexit negotiations. If we have learned anything from this referendum, the Tories are shrewd and self-interested, and they certainly do not have our interests at heart.