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The Saturday Essay: Brexit and the last days of democracy


AS EU-imposed austerity crushed Greece in 2010, a waiter in Corfu told us: ‘We should cut the heads off the politicians.’ Before the week was out there were riots in Athens, buildings were set on fire and three bank employees burned to death.

Thankfully, we’re nowhere near that stage, but if you lift the lid off social media you’ll see the pot is bubbling ferociously. Britain is split in two, each half calling the other all sorts of names. Most of these ranters qualify for jury service and the franchise; one trembles at the thought of ‘direct democracy’. One in four of the population is said to suffer from a mental disorder and to judge by Facebook it’s plausible.

But in a way, hardly surprising. Far from seeking to reunite the country, professional politicians in the UK have been fomenting discontent among Remainers and have even advised EU leaders on how to subvert the Referendum result. Is it a coincidence that the Daily Mail has been given a new editor who has U-turned the paper’s line and now characterises Brexiteers as ‘saboteurs’ leading us to an ‘abyss’?

Even the Eurocrats are infected. Mr Van Rompuy, who looks as if he couldn’t decapitate a boiled egg, fantasises about holding a knife to our throat;  Mr Tusk, even less loved in his native Poland than here,  smirks at a vision of ‘those who promoted Brexit’ in Hell. Their intemperate language is a clue to the fact that not one but two crises are brewing.

The first is the European Union’s. Jean Monnet’s dream of a Europe that could never make war with itself again has been caught in the trap of confusing aim with method. Full political unification has been pursued clandestinely and with an almost suicidal obsession, like Captain Ahab after his white whale. As a prelude, the single currency was forced into being despite the unreadiness of participants such as Greece and Italy, both of which fudged their economic data to qualify and have suffered for it since.

The EU’s appetite for centralised control and aggrandisement remains unslaked (would C P Snow have dubbed them ‘the labradors of power’?) Straight after the centenary of the Armistice, Frau Merkel returned to her theme of a European intervention force. Now she is after an aircraft carrier – just when it is rumoured that China plans to sell off its own to Pakistan. How does one justify the expense of such capital ships, with their increasing vulnerability?

The interference in the Ukraine that has heightened tensions between the Western alliance and Russia – see the military build-up in the region on both sides here and here – hasn’t put the EU off its plan to foster supranational order elsewhere, too: ‘Africa is the future,’ said Mr Juncker in his 2018 ‘State of the Union’ address, urging more collective arrangements there of the kind that were the foundation stones of the EU.

In the midst of this, Brexit and the common man threaten to spoil the grand project of the philosopher-kings. Again and again, on shows such as Question Time, ordinary people are bluntly challenging their elected representatives to do what was solemnly promised in 2016.

This brings us to the second, local crisis. By affirming (not only orally but in the official pamphlet: ‘The EU referendum is a once in a generation decision . . . This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide’,) that the Referendum would be held once only and that the result would be implemented whatever the outcome, our leaders effectively turned it into a binding plebiscite; now they wish to resile.

That has raised and dashed expectations in the most emphatic way, and the implications are dangerous. If this vote is delegitimised, then so are all those passed in Parliament, many of them by a smaller margin than four per cent. (The Callaghan government fell in 1979 when the motion of no confidence was carried by a single vote.)

What would the consequences be? Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said on last week’s Question Time that there will be a ‘day of reckoning’ if Brexit is nullified, and he may be thinking of deselections, party membership cancellations and the shattering of the two-party system itself. But some think, or worse, wish, that it could go further – even Dr Richard North has said, perhaps only half-jokingly, ‘It is not only ideas that develop in the provinces – so do revolutions.’

Fortunately, revolutions and civil wars don’t just happen, and a good thing too, as whatever the outcome the process is horrific and often long-drawn-out, because unlike a war there’s nobody to make peace on behalf of the whole country. They need an evil constellation of factors, but that discussion is for another occasion.

Having said that, one of the possible triggers is major financial dislocation. Not just the vindictive awkwardness in trading arrangements that the EU appears to be preparing for us, cutting off its nose to spite its face, but the kind of long-cycle economic downturn about which Irving Fisher, Nicolai Kondratiev and others have theorised.

The role of debt has been overlooked by many economists, and Professor Steve Keen has estimated that only some 20 out of 10,000 professionals foresaw the 2008/2009 Global Financial Crisis. For those who think the crisis is over because of Quantitative Easing and Modern Monetary Theory, it’s worth noting that global debt is now bigger than ever – some three times the size of the world’s GDP.  Despite high levels of money-printing we are not yet seeing significant inflation, but that is because economic demand is dropping and debt servicing is a growing challenge; the turnover of cash is slowing and offsetting the effects of monetary inflation. Also, the US dollar, the world’s reserve currency, is being snapped up by foreign countries scared of local currency depreciation/default, so at present those dollars are not cascading back into the USA and boosting the price of everything, says analyst Martin Armstrong. 

Harder times are coming: goodbye cheap energy, a booming consumer economy and abundant public services; hello to raising the state pension age, including for women who hadn’t expected that, trimming the social benefits of the gilets jaunes and so on. Ordinary wage-earners now need additional financial support to make ends meet; real hourly wages have pretty much stalled over the last 40 years since the multinationals saw massive opportunities for capital in global workforce arbitrage. Sir James Goldsmith warned about the socio-economic consequences at the time of GATT in 1994, and now it has all come to pass.

It will go on until it can’t, but who knows when or how that will happen?

When the times come that ‘try men’s souls’, the search is on for an ideological map to find our way out. Power relations come under scrutiny. In the eighteenth century, the American colonists adopted the Enlightenment analysis that rooted power in the consent of the people, so that when General Gage defended his lumping American rebel officers with their men by saying that he recognised only ranks derived from the King, George Washington replied that for his part he could not conceive any rank ‘more honorable that that which flows from the uncorrupted choice of a brave and free people – the purest source and original fountain of all power’. Five months later came the publication of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, arguing on the same lines and setting the movement alight.

Ian Geering QC’s piece last week on the Bruges Group site (10 March) follows this tradition. It is a normative political philosophy – this is how we feel things ought to be, rather than how they have been for most of recorded history. Did the Americans complain of taxation without Parliamentary representation? Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester shared their plight, while Old Sarum had seven voters and two MPs. Up to the twentieth century, only a fraction of the adult British population could vote at all, and had to resort to other means to register their dissatisfaction: as Tony Benn observed at the time of the Maastricht capitulation, ‘Riot has historically played a much larger part in British politics than we are ever allowed to know . . . Unless we can offer people a peaceful route to the resolution of injustices through the ballot box, they will not listen to a House that has blocked off that route.’

And that is where we are: watching a cloth-eared Parliament rejecting an ‘open prison’ Withdrawal Agreement yet fighting against a clean break, either way negating what the people decided upon.

Yes, the people are divided – by their very nature, votes are divisive; the key to peace is to accept them as decisive. But those with access to power and the media have worked hard to jemmy the cracks wider. The process of re-radicalisation has started, and this time the State seems either unconscious of the peril, or (like George III) sure of its ability to patronise and repress.

Britain nearly had a conflagration in 1789. The philosopher Richard Price, a friend of Paine, gave a French Revolution-inspired speech: ‘A Discourse on the Love of Our Country’, looking at the fundamentals of politics and, like Paine, rooting power in the people. The reception was enthusiastic (a term with distinct connotations of danger, in those days).

The State was alive to the danger, and acted. Certain gentlemen came to advise Price on his future conduct. Burke began to compose a justification for the British Constitution in rebuttal. 1789 marked the last time a woman was burned at the stake (in London, for coining). Radical groups such as the London Corresponding Society were infiltrated by government agents and ultimately suppressed; yet even with the brakes on, the vehicle of power was pushed inch by inch, over the next century, towards electoral reform and democratisation.

Answering the radicals who took revolutionary France as their model, Edmund Burke articulated a pragmatic scheme for the Parliamentary government we now have, a balance between the royal Executive and popular representation, and between constituency representation and mere delegation. This circumvented the bloody conflict of first principles that played itself out on the other side of the Channel.

But Burke was addressing the problem of how we govern ourselves, not whether we should be able to govern ourselves at all; even pragmatism has its limits. And on this latter issue, the people – firmly assured by their representatives that this vote would be decisive – made their determination. The task of their representatives was then to carry it through, while closing the divisions among the people as they went forward. They have failed on both counts. The issue has now turned from UK versus EU, to people – a confused, disunited, squabbling people – versus Parliament itself.

All our democratic progress is in danger of being thrown away.

For if the solution to the threat of revolution in Britain as France burned was to fashion its own sustainable form of democracy, then to discard democracy is to wind the clock back to pre-revolutionary days. And then the clock will start forward again, towards fresh crisis – and solutions that have already failed.


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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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