Brexit, Democracy, and the Power of the State


Josef Váchal’s Cry of the Masses (source:

 First some disclosure: I voted Remain. I think the majority has made a self-harming mistake in voting to exit the EU. I found it emotionally and ethically shocking that Britain rejected EU membership. Even more shocking were the prevailing reasons for doing so. But I am equally appalled that so many people want to annul that result by either ignoring it or forcing another referendum.

I acknowledge that David Cameron’s decision to have the referendum was a failed attempt at craven and self-serving political strategy, but he did and we voted and we are here. I also recognize that, in the run-up to the referendum, immense falsehoods were perpetuated on all sides, and both our elected officials and our ‘free and balanced’ media failed us all, unforgivably, in the issuing and promotion of lies. I believe many voted irresponsibly for bitter and bloody-minded reasons that had little to do with EU membership. Nonetheless, I am satisfied that the majority who voted for Brexit knew what they were doing. I think the majority of Brexit voters were aware of the real consequences of their choice. Democracy doesn’t require people vote with the best of intentions. It demands that they are mentally competent to make a decision. I believe they were.

I have good friends, close friends who I have much respect for, who will vote for Owen Smith because he’s promising to either a)overturn the referendum results or b) run a new referendum because they are convinced that Britain made the wrong choice when it voted to exit the EU. These are the same people I have watched argue – rightly in my opinion – that censorship imposed by the state for ‘the protection of the people’ is a troubling abrogation of power to an elite who can then determine who needs ‘protecting’ and  what we should be ‘protected’ from.  Historically, that has been a very slippery slope.

I admit, I have an acute intolerance for hypocrisy. If a principle is important, it’s important even when it doesn’t work to your benefit or your estimation of what is best. I don’t say this with righteous indignation. Everyone is guilty of hypocrisy from time to time. It is human nature to embrace as inviolate principles when they benefit us and be  more flexible about principles when the the consequences of upholding them  affect us negatively. My inability to be more understanding or accepting is not a virtue. It’s a flaw I cannot seem to fix in myself.

Meanwhile, I’m not an absolutist. I accept, for instance, that laws against hate speech are beneficial and do contribute to a more inclusive and livable society. But I am mindful of the danger that this excuse of ‘protection’ might be used against a population to degrade the fabric of a democracy itself. McCarthy used the excuse of ‘protecting’ America from communism. Hitler used it to ‘protect’ German culture from ‘Jewish Internationalists’.  Women’s rights and free movement have historically been restricted ‘for their own protection’. More complicatedly, it is being used right now, in the UK, to curb the indoctrination of young Muslims at risk of radicalisation by IS.

While I think that Brexit is harmful for the UK, I believe empowering a government to overturn the results of a legally constituted referendum are worse. Why?

  1. Democratic governments rely heavily on precedent. If you nullify a vote once, it is much easier to do the second time. It can, very quickly, become common practice.
  2. Democracies are living organisms that occasionally need to make bad choices in order to learn to make better ones later, or how to pull back of their own volition. Invalidating a the results of a referendum to ‘save democracy’ is like bombing the village to save it. Yes, you may get something that, in the short term is better for the country, but what have you done to the structure of governance itself?
  3. If a government in power runs an election and loses, but 48% of the country determines that the new party elected will be bad for the country, would it be right to re-run the election, or simply refuse to acknowledge the result? Because that is very close to what is being advocated here.
  4. If the people cannot be trusted to vote in their own interest over Brexit, then it follows they also can’t be trusted to pick a government that will be good for the country.

Theresa May said Brexit means Brexit, but this is rhetorical rubbish. There is no fixed definition to Brexit. Our membership in the EU was never ‘regular’ or ‘standard’ in the first place: we didn’t adopt the Euro. Our relationship with the EU after the triggering of Article 50 is going to be equally ‘craftable’. Realistically, it is likely to be the forces of the Neoliberal power elite that will have the largest hand in crafting what that relationship is. They will demand a freedom of trade, and the EU will demand freedom of movement in exchange for it. My guess is that it will be ‘Brexit-lite’ and, while not my preference, it is better than the complete divorce many fear.

Democracies can make hideous mistakes. The masses can and have voted for atrocity. I want to reiterate that I am NOT an absolutist: there are extreme cases in which I believe the refusal to recognise the results of an election or a referendum are warranted. If a majority voted for a policy that was genocidal, or disenfranchised the basic rights of a significant proportion of a population. But the consequences of Brexit – even the hardest form of Brexit – do not meet this criteria for invalidating a democratically arrived at decision.

I do not believe that suffering economic recession, the need to obtain a visa to travel or fewer choices of where to live and work in the world are dire enough consequences to imperil the principle of the democratic process or the mechanism of one person, one vote.

I believe the majority of Britons have made a foolish choice. They will have to live with it, and most unfairly, so will I. But if I were to advocate invalidating their choice, then who would I be?