Flat White

Brexit: a distortion of democracy

20 February 2019

6:49 PM

20 February 2019

6:49 PM

The Brits have been left out to dry in a lousy Brexit process.

Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on Prime Minister Theresa May to guarantee that British employee rights never fall below European Union standards. In a now deeply muddled debate, Corbyn offers a problematic view to the mandate delivered in 2016’s ‘Leave’ vote. If Britain is to model its industrial relations on the EU, surely the parliament is bringing a sledgehammer to the wholly independent Britain articulated in the Brexit promise?

The rush to a referendum in 2016, ordered by Brexiteers and delivered by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, was the catalyst for this disarray as it fundamentally distorted Britain’s natural democratic process.

There have been two critical consequences. First, it has obscured popular expectations by limiting Brits to a choice between two vague words – ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. Second, in creating political dysfunction, it has allowed Brexit to become more about what the EU wants than the British.

Democracy works to guarantee a kind of equality among participants in a particular stage of collective decision making. It is founded in the idea that the popular will should guide the legislative process.

There are different ways to institutionalise democracy – primarily as either direct or representative. In Ancient Greece, all citizens were required to serve a term in office and contribute directly to the drafting of public law.

This model encountered an opponent in Plato who argued that different knowledge equipped particular people with the ability to make specific policy decisions. Later, French political philosopher Montesquieu agreed noting that while legislative power should reside in the whole body of the people, for efficiency citizens should transact by representatives.

Britain’s Westminster System gives direct decision-making power to the citizen every five years at an election. Through this function, the individual can choose between a series of expansive policy platforms that are well considered and proposed by their law-making representatives.

The Brexit referendum has neither upheld the representative tradition nor superimposed an entirely direct democratic process. Parliamentarians lost their capacity to debate the popular will through electoral policy, while the citizen’s judgement was limited to a decision between two words, ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’.


As a result, May’s discussions with the EU have not been guided by the public will but by factional warring over reflections on the referendum’s result.

To secure the support of Labour MPs, Theresa May appears likely to suggest a ‘regression lock’ that would match UK worker protections to that of the EU. Yet remarkably, this move to a closer EU relationship has accompanied a reworking of the Irish ‘backstop’ clause –promising to reconfigure the backstop’s connection to a temporary customs union, May has assured hard Brexit conservatives of a more distant EU relationship.

May’s competing concessions speak to a confused democratic mandate – what have the people’s representatives been enlisted to do with the success of a single word; ‘Leave’?

Through 2016’s referendum, legislators were not required to address detailed policy considerations – such as how the UK could retain a soft border with Northern Ireland alongside an EU exit – and were instead empowered to campaign only for Brexit in principle. This left a void of confusion upon the delivery of a ‘Leave’ vote.

The popular will in Britain is variable and ever-dynamic. Research now suggests that with many then-disinterested young Brits having failed to vote and with some of 2016’s ‘Leave’ cohort having now died, the public would support ‘Remain’ today. That is why a momentary grasp at popular opinion over a matter of consuming national economic, legal and political importance is fundamentally trivial.

The old saying endures – patience is a virtue. Brexiteers should have given themselves more time to agitate for change and see the policy taken to an election. Had this occurred, the British Parliament would have been left with a detail-specific plan to exit the EU, as opposed to a vague concept approved in a referendum.

Yet, while Brexiteers must answer to their role in pressuring a referendum, David Cameron made a catastrophic mistake in presuming the success of a ‘Remain’ vote. Emboldened by his victory in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, he positioned government by way of being able to respond in effect only to a ‘Remain’ vote.

Chaos now reigns supreme. He even managed to revive the Scottish independence movement. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has labelled it “democratically unacceptable” that Scots are tied to Brexit when they emphatically voted to remain.

The referendum’s unexpected result collided with claims that the government was out of touch to pressure a premature triggering of Article 50. With no plan and no agreed policy platform behind her, all May could do was profess a set of ‘red lines’ in her 2017 White Paper – this was a series of minimum standards from which she would negotiate the withdrawal agreement.

In doing so, she immediately revealed her hand to EU bureaucrats, establishing the position of weakness from which she negotiates today.

Despite May having proclaimed the UK would not continue to pay into the EU budget, its insistence upon a divorce bill means the UK will likely be making payments up until 2064. Similarly, where May insisted the UK would exit single market, the Irish backstop now seems likely to necessitate Britain’s continuing membership at some degree.

It is ironic that a quest to restore British sovereignty has fallen captive to the whim of EU negotiators.

There must not be a second Brexit referendum as it could only further complicate an already confused mandate. It is true that the British people now have some substantive policy to vote on (in the form of May’s dealings with the EU) but what would a new ‘Remain’ vote even mean – ‘no’ to May’s particular deal or ‘no’ to Brexit as a whole?

The best scenario now is that May and Corbyn promote two detailed Brexit strategies with legitimate points of contrast. Only then, in an election, can the British people offer their lawmakers some clarity as to the meaning of their ‘Leave’ vote.

Tom Akhurst is a member of the Melbourne University Liberal Club.

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