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Brexit and the Future of British Democracy
Mal Fletcher

Posted: 21 September 2018

Hardly any issue divides Brits today as does Brexit. In the face of EU push-backs and domestic political infighting, the potential impacts of a suggested second vote, on Britain’s democracy, are often overlooked.

Some advocates of a second vote want to replay the 2016 referendum. They want, they say, to help Britain avoid an historic mistake.

Others claim that a second vote should be about the public ratifying the government's final deal with Brussels. But even in that camp there are many who hope for just one final outcome: the complete reversal of the 2016 vote.

I voted Remain - with, I must say, some strong reservations about the EU's push for "ever closer union". I am proud of my dual British-Australian citizenship and, having lived in northern Europe for a decade before moving to the UK, I’ve seen many of the benefits of EU citizenship.

However, I’ve also watched with growing concern the EU’s increasingly overt commitment to moving toward eventual political union, a “United States of Europe”. Just a few years ago, nobody a the top of the EU would be heard talking openly about building an EU army. Recently, a nascent army became a reality.

I appreciate the strengths of the EU, but I’m also aware of its many weaknesses. As soon as the outcome of the 2016 referendum was declared, I decided, like I'm sure many other people, that Britain could make it work. I believe in this country’s capacity for innovation, for trade and for alliance-building.  

Many supporters of a second vote have taken to calling it a People's Vote. This, of course, raises the question: what was the original vote, if not a people's vote?

Some of the most prominent voices calling for a new referendum belong to politicians, including former prime ministers. I think that they and many of the people who support them, despite their sincerity, are making several serious mistakes.

For one thing, they seem to assume that life revolves around politics. They speak as if people's lives will succeed or fail in the long run according to whether or not Britain remains in the EU.

Obviously, politics - even more than economics - lies at the heart of the European experiment, at least in functional if not cultural terms.

The fact is though, that the larger part of life in any free country exists beyond politics. Certainly, politics has over the past few decades come to occupy a position in our day-to-day discourse and the exchange of ideas than was the case, say, in my late father’s time.

Yes, politics was always important - the development of economic policy and other areas of public regulation impacts upon many areas of our lives. However, where politics arguably existed at the periphery of daily life in the past, it has now taken a more prominent position.

This is true in many of the more than 40 developed nations I’ve worked in over the years. It is partly due to the impact of 24/7 rolling news and social media, and partly to the fact that so much more administration is required to organise today’s larger and more multicultural population bases.

While administration is a good servant, it is a very poor master. In the spirit of British TV’s hit series Yes Minister, one is often left wondering whether politics drives a growth in bureaucracy, or the reverse.  

Politics is not the most important thing in life. With Brexit, Britain is not vacating its place in either the geographic or cultural space known as Europe. Nor is it withdrawing from all cooperation with Europe on economic, security and geopolitical interests.

Apparently, the majority of people in Britain want to trade with Europe, they probably also want to travel in Europe. But they don’t want to be governed by Europe - especially when the EU is headed by largely unelected managers.

Then there's an implicit assumption, among some second vote advocates, that everyday people are either too stupid or too callow to be trusted with a one-time referendum on something as important as Brexit.

Apparently, people need to be presented with as many referendums as it takes to provide the right outcome.

That's exactly the type of political pomposity that led many people to vote Leave in the first place. They’d seen the EU arrogantly disregard the wishes of its citizens on key issues, like the shape of its constitution. Now, Brits are seeing the same arrogant intransigence in some of their own politicians.

The bottom line is that in 2016, the people of Britain - albeit not by a large margin - voted to leave the EU. They did not take part in an opinion poll. Most voted in good faith, believing that the result, whichever way it went, would be respected.

I see clear dangers to public confidence in our democracy should we move toward a second referendum. In the end, we simply can't have a democracy only when we like its outcomes.

Will some people have changed their minds since the referendum? Yes. I daresay that's true on both sides of the debate. But shifts in public mood do not on their own warrant fresh elections or referendums, once a clear majority has spoken.

If a new vote is held, what happens if the mood shifts again? When exactly is a decision - on any issue - considered to be the final decision? 

If a new Brexit vote was to be held this year, as some are demanding, what would happen if the public mood then shifted again - especially when it becomes clear that some EU figures will thenceforth view Britain with suspicion?

Some will argue that, in a generation or two from now, voters may want to re-enter the EU. That's certainly possible, but we can't, from this standpoint, definitively predict ANYTHING that far ahead.

For all we know, Britain, after a period of adjustment & some short-term economic challenge, may go on to do much better outside the EU. We just don't know.

But then, we also don’t know how the EU will deal with its own problems - the political challenges it faces, in Sweden or Italy, for example, or the ongoing economic problems in some of its southern countries.

These may fundamentally change how today's Remain voters see the EU and its future goals.

In all of this, one thing is certain. Britain won’t get anywhere riding on the back of rank pessimism. Hope is not a strategy. But neither is despair. At least hope puts us in the frame of mind to develop a strategy.

In the interests of safe-guarding our wonderful democracy, so costly to millions of servicemen and women in several wars, we should keep calm and carry on.

We should pull together, keep our politicians accountable, pay attention to the negotiations and, in the end, make Brexit work.

Watch “Brexit: 2nd Vote or Carry On?”, on 2030PlusTV with Mal Fletcher. 

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