LONDON – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent call for voters to think again about leaving the European Union, echoed in parliamentary debates ahead of the government’s official launch of the process in March, is an Emperor’s New Clothes moment. Although Blair is now an unpopular figure, his voice, like that of the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, is loud enough to carry above the cabal of flatterers assuring Prime Minister Theresa May that her naked gamble with Britain’s future is clad in democratic finery.
The importance of Blair’s speech can be gauged by the hysterical over-reaction to his suggestion of reopening the Brexit debate, even from supposedly objective media: “It will be seen by some as a call to arms – Tony Blair’s Brexit insurrection,” according to the BBC.
Such is the tyranny of the majority in post-referendum Britain that a “Remainer” proposal for rational debate and persuasion is considered an insurrection. And anyone questioning government policy on Brexit is routinely described as an “enemy of the People,” whose treachery will provoke “blood in the streets.”
What explains this sudden paranoia? After all, political opposition is a necessary condition for functioning democracy – and nobody would have been shocked if Euroskeptics continued to oppose Europe after losing the referendum, just as Scottish nationalists have continued campaigning for independence after their ten-point referendum defeat in 2014. And no one seriously expects American opponents of President Donald Trump to stop protesting and unite with his supporters.
The difference with Brexit is that last June’s referendum subverted British democracy in two insidious ways. First, the Leave vote was inspired mainly by resentments unconnected with Europe. Second, the government has exploited this confusion of issues to claim a mandate to do anything it wants.
Six months before the referendum, the EU did not even appear among the ten most important issues facing Britain as mentioned by potential voters. Immigration did rank at the top, but, as Blair noted in his speech, anti-immigration sentiment was mainly against multicultural immigration, which had little or nothing to do with the EU. The Leave campaign’s strategy was therefore to open a Pandora’s box of resentments over regional imbalances, economic inequality, social values, and cultural change. The Remain campaign completely failed to respond to this, because it concentrated on the question that was literally on the ballot, and addressed the costs and benefits of EU membership.
The fact that the referendum was such an amorphous but all-encompassing protest vote explains its second politically corrosive effect. Because the Leave campaign successfully combined a multitude of different grievances, May now claims the referendum as an open-ended mandate. Instead of arguing for controversial Conservative policies – including corporate tax cuts, deregulation, unpopular infrastructure projects, and social security reforms – on their merits, May now portrays such policies as necessary conditions for a “successful Brexit.” Anyone who disagrees is dismissed as an elitist “Remoaner” showing contempt for ordinary voters.
Making matters worse, the obvious risks of Brexit have created a siege mentality. “Successful Brexit” has become a matter of national survival, turning even the mildest proposals to limit the government’s negotiating options – for example, parliamentary votes to guarantee rights for EU citizens already living in Britain – into acts of sabotage.
As in wartime, every criticism shades into treason. That is why the main opposition Labour Party has collaborated in defeating all parliamentary efforts to moderate May’s hardline Brexit plans, even on such relatively uncontentious issues as visa-free travel, pharmaceutical testing, or science funding. Likewise, more ambitious demands from Britain’s smaller opposition parties for a second referendum on the final exit deal have gained no traction, even among committed pro-Europeans, who are intimidated by the witch-hunting atmosphere against unrepentant Remainers.
Sir Ivan Rogers, who was forced to resign last month as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU because he questioned May’s negotiating approach, predicted this week a “gory, bitter, and twisted” breakup between Britain and Europe. But this scenario is not inevitable. A more constructive possibility is now emerging along the lines suggested by Blair. Instead of vainly trying to influence May’s hardline stance in the negotiations, the new priority should be to restart a rational debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe and to convince the public that this debate is democratically legitimate.
This means challenging the idea that a referendum permanently outweighs all other mechanisms of democratic politics and persuading voters that a referendum mandate refers to a specific question in specific conditions, at a specific time. If the conditions change or the referendum question acquires a different meaning, voters should be allowed to change their minds.
The process of restoring a proper understanding of democracy could start within the next few weeks. The catalyst would be amendments to the Brexit legislation now passing through Parliament. The goal would be to prevent any new relationship between Britain and the EU from taking effect unless approved by a parliamentary vote that allowed for the possibility of continuing EU membership. Such an amendment would make the status quo the default option if the government failed to satisfy Parliament with the new arrangements negotiated over the next two years. It would avert the Hobson’s choice the government now proposes: either accept whatever deal we offer, or crash out of the EU with no agreed relationship at all.
Allowing Parliament to decide about the new relationship with Europe, instead of leaving it entirely up to May, would restore the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. More important, it would legitimize a new political debate in Britain about the true costs and benefits of EU membership, possibly leading to a second referendum on the government’s Brexit plans.
This is precisely why May vehemently opposes giving Parliament any meaningful voice on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Presumably, she will block any such requirement from being attached to the Brexit legislation in March. But that may not matter: if a genuine debate about Brexit gets restarted, democracy will prevent her from closing it down.