Opinion: Brexit and the betrayal of democracy

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

By Dr Mark Avis

A painfully long time ago, in 2016, I wrote an opinion piece defending Brexit. I did not vote in the Brexit referendum for the simple reason that my home is now in New Zealand and I felt I no longer had the right. But now I am changing my view. The democratic principles that led me to not vote are now under threat and I feel obliged to help restore democracy in my home country, given the opportunity.

The Brexit referendum was the single largest vote in the history of the United Kingdom, with a far higher rate of participation than any recent general election. The ballot was clear: stay in, or leave, the European Union. At the time of the election there was wall-to-wall media coverage of both sides of the debate. It would have been nearly impossible for any person, who was at least vaguely interested, not to understand the meaning of the referendum or the potential risks and rewards that could result from the vote. Then 52 per cent voted leave in a victory for those in favour of Brexit.  

It was during the post-referendum period that new terms appeared in political circles – “hard” and “soft” Brexit. Note here that the referendum only had two options – leave or stay in the European Union. The new terms were the first indications that the establishment were seeking to undermine the referendum result.

Soft Brexit meant remaining subject to the dictates of European Union institutions, while having even less influence on the policy of the institutions. A soft Brexit was therefore not Brexit, but an attempt to undermine Brexit. The only real Brexit was always a hard Brexit. This is not to say there could be no negotiated trade deal, but rather that any deal could not continue to tie the United Kingdom to European Union institutions and their directives. Theresa May returned from negotiations with a “deal” which was not, in any reasonable interpretation of the referendum result, “Brexit”.  

I will cut short the long and painful process that ended with the rejection of May’s deal and Boris Johnson replacing her as prime minister. Unlike May, Johnson is willing to leave the European Union with no deal and it appears the European Union is also extremely unfavourable to further negotiation. At the same time, it seems the majority of MPs are now increasingly willing to openly thwart Brexit and the result of the referendum. 

Dr Mark Avis

Dr Mark Avis.

Politics and doublespeak

In the last week, fears of Boris Johnson’s commitment to leave the European Union with or without a deal have seen a defeat of the government in crucial Brexit votes. As a result, Johnson called for a new election but this motion was also defeated, thus leaving the United Kingdom in limbo.   

The excuses being given by MPs who oppose Brexit are weak:

  1. It is a defence of democracy. This is argued by MPs who have just rejected an election unless legislation is passed that favours their position. An election would allow the United Kingdom electorate to determine the government position on Brexit, which is the very essence of democracy. Of course, the democracy argument also ignores the referendum result.
  2. The United Kingdom is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. This is only true if no referendum had taken place. As soon as a referendum is called, with a promise the outcome is binding, direct democracy is being enacted. That is the point of a binding referendum.
  3. At issue is parliamentary sovereignty – this is argued by MPs who support loss of parliamentary sovereignty to the European Union, and oppose the return of sovereignty from the European Union to parliament. The idea that those working against parliamentary sovereignty are working for parliamentary sovereignty can only be described as comedic.  

Against such a backdrop of ‘doublespeak’, something quite extraordinary is taking place in the United Kingdom. A majority of MPs are choosing to reject a democratic and binding referendum vote, placing themselves above the people they are supposed to serve. The whole purpose of the notion of a ‘soft’ Brexit was to obfuscate their opposition to the results of the referendum.

Unfortunately, although it is no laughing matter, there will be many in the United Kingdom whose faith in democracy is being shattered. The consequence of this loss of faith are hard to predict, but it is a certainty that the consequences will not be positive, and likely that the consequences will be dire. So, I will vote again, if my vote can help save the ideals of democracy in my home country.  

Dr Mark Avis is a senior lecturer at Massey University’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing and an expat Brit who has lived in New Zealand since 2009.

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