IT’S said that Mark Twain wrote: ‘If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.’ I’ve heard this quote repeated several times by people I’d always assumed were trying to conceal their ignorance of politics by saying something that sounded astute, but that had no foundation in reality. After all, the ideological differences between the Conservative and Labour parties – which have grown still wider in recent years – surely disproved this churlish statement? Sadly, I’m no longer sure they do.
In 2015, Parliament voted to hold a referendum on exiting the European Union. We were told by the government that the British state would enact the result of that referendum, and that no further referendums would be held to try to overturn the result. We were also told by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and by both Remain and Leave campaigns, that a vote to leave the EU was a vote to leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.
For a brief period after the result, it appeared as though these promises would be upheld and democracy sustained. But it has since become abundantly clear that many parliamentarians have other ideas.
In recent weeks, Parliament has successfully inflicted a series of defeats upon the government in an attempt to prevent ministers delivering the referendum result. We’ve seen the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, change parliamentary procedures in an effort to make leaving more difficult. We’ve seen Labour’s Yvette Cooper, supported by some Remain Conservatives, win an amendment to the Finance Bill which intended to inhibit government preparations for a ‘no deal’ outcome. And now, in light of the Prime Minister’s latest Brexit defeat, we are witnessing a concerted effort by Remain MPs to delay Brexit – perhaps indefinitely – by seeking an extension to Article 50 to give time for a second referendum.
Other Europhiles, spearheaded by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, are seeking to wrest control of the withdrawal process from the executive to soften radically, or prevent, our departure from the EU. Remainers are celebrating these events, claiming that our sovereign parliament is ‘taking back control’ of Brexit from the government. But this twisted logic misses the point entirely. Parliament is sovereign only because the people are sovereign. In 2015, Parliament voted to outsource responsibility for deciding whether or not to leave the EU to the British people, and in 2016, the people voted to leave.
Further, in 2017, over 80 per cent of the electorate voted for parties which had pledged in their election manifestos to leave the Single Market and Customs Union. The electorate could hardly have made their views clearer. By thwarting Brexit, therefore, Parliament isn’t seizing back control from the government, but from the very people it is paid to represent.
Consequently, exiting the European Union is no longer about the reconfiguration of our trading relationships with friends and allies. It is about who runs Britain: the people, or the establishment. It is about whether or not we continue to live in a democracy at all.
In the rest of Europe, referendum results with which the EU has disagreed have been overturned or ignored in Denmark (1992), Ireland (2001 and 2008), France (2005), The Netherlands (2005) and Greece (2015). In 2011, the EU even deposed democratically elected governments in Italy and Greece and replaced them with pro-EU technocratic administrations.
The result? The near-destruction of the centre-Left and the advance of anti-EU ‘populism’ which has seen its support triple over the past 20 years. Now one in four Europeans vote for (often unpleasant) populist parties of Left and Right hues. In Greece, Italy and Hungary, they have even managed to form governments. When people are consistently ignored, they feel as though they have no choice but to vote for the extremes. This May will no doubt see further sweeping gains for such parties during elections for the European parliament.
After our referendum, we had the chance to end populism in this country (at least on the political Right) before it had even got going. Both UKIP and the BNP were all but destroyed in the 2017 general election. But if the Remainers are successful in delaying or even preventing our departure from the EU, people’s faith in our political system will invariably shatter. Anger here too will now grow. The Remainers could end up destroying everything they seek to preserve.