Are we now getting a clearer idea about how the death knell of Brexit will come about? An extension is granted and we do not leave the EU on October 31. We hold a general election which a Remain Alliance wins. It holds a second referendum. Foreign nationals with residency are given the right to vote. (Labour is set to commit to this as outlined here.) Remain wins the referendum narrowly. The bells toll for Brexit.
I am reminded of T S Eliot’s The Hollow Men:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
David Cameron and the Conservative Government gave us a referendum. The question was very simple: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The Government sent a leaflet to every household in the country which said: ‘This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.’ The rest might have been history.
But between the motion and the act falls the shadow. We are now living under a long shadow.
Imagine if Brexit is actually overturned? What would that say about democracy in this country? Would it still exist? Do we still believe in the notion of one person, one vote? Do we regard ourselves as moral equals, all with an equal say in the fundamental decisions that impact our country?
Or have we moved beyond the democratic and into the technocratic era? Do we now consider that those with specialist expertise should rule over us? This is what Plato recommended in The Republic about 2,500 years ago. And when Athenian ‘democracy’ existed for a brief period it was far from being truly democratic. Only a small number of male citizens could participate. That early experiment in democracy was closer to Plato’s notion of expert rule than it was to true democracy.
In fact, the idea that we are all morally equal, and that we all should have an equal voice in the most important collective decisions, took a very long time to build. I am no historian, but I detect two main strands in its story. One is the Christian tradition of loving one’s neighbour as oneself, the equivalence of all of our souls in the eyes of God. The other is the slow process of resting the power of rulers in the notion that they govern with our consent. The ‘our’ slowly became all of us. This is written about extraordinarily well by Larry Siedentop in his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.
I am wondering how, if Remainers win this in the end, they will defend it. Will it be an argument that relies on the notion of technocracy?
I know that many TCW readers are fans of T S Eliot:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
(The Hollow Men)
When we all read our papers in the morning; when we debate politics with our families over Sunday lunch; when we hunch over our computers and shout at each other on Twitter, we do it with gusto and with energy. The actions have energy because they have meaning. They have meaning because our thoughts and our voices matter. Our thoughts and voices matter because we are all participants in our democratic process. If our democracy dies, our voices and our thoughts become meaningless – like rats’ feet over broken glass in a dry cellar.
But it’s not over yet. It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to get back out there and fight the referendum over again. We need to fight for Brexit, for democracy, and for the very meaning of our political conversations and our collective engagement in our shared national life. We can’t rely on the Brexit Party and the Conservatives, not speaking to each other, somehow to navigate this for us. A #LeaveAlliance is needed. We are not hollow men. We will not let this end with a whimper.