Monday, 30 September 2019

Misdirected anger

The attempts by the PM and those around him to play up the possibility of riot and disorder unless the UK leaves the EU on 31st October are clearly entirely deliberate.  Making anger more widespread and turning it into street action is an unconventional ploy to say the least, and one which is potentially very dangerous.  But the way that they are now framing Brexit no longer has anything to do with the supposed benefits, and everything to do with the alleged frustration of democracy.  And I can understand why people will be angry that having been asked to vote on something and having given their opinion, the promised outcome has not yet been delivered.  A degree of anger is justified, but things are more complicated than that.  (And it isn’t one-sided either – Remainers are also entitled to feel a sense of anger that the result was, in any event, achieved on the basis of a false prospectus, something which would be illegal when selling anything other than politics.)
What exactly are they angry about?  It’s true that the majority (a minority of the electorate, for sure, but under the rules of the game, a majority of those voting is what counts) voted to leave the EU, but there was nothing on the ballot paper which defined either how or when the UK would leave.  Those questions were implicitly left to parliament to decide, and to date parliament has been unable to reach an agreement on them.  In that regard, parliament is simply a reflection of the wider populace – there is no consensus about the how or the when.  Anger expressed as being about ‘denial of democracy’ is really anger about the refusal of the majority to accept that the minority have the right to determine answers to questions about timing and method which the referendum didn’t even ask.
In terms of who is to blame for parliament’s failure to agree, well, like everything else associated with Brexit, the buck ultimately stops with the Conservative Party.  Had Theresa May made any attempt to seek consensus around a Brexit negotiating position at the start of her premiership, I rather suspect that the UK would have left by now, on the sort of terms which the Brexiteers themselves talked about during the referendum campaign, i.e. a close relationship probably involving continued participation in the single market and Customs Union whilst being outside the political structures.  The Tory extremists would have voted against, of course; but if such a path had been adopted in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, enough opposition MPs would probably have felt bound by the referendum to deliver such an outcome.  She decided, however, that maintaining the unity of her party was more important and laid down a series of red lines which stemmed primarily from that consideration rather than from the result of the referendum per se.  From that point on, whether Brexit would be delivered or not depended entirely on her ability to convince her own side and, as we’ve seen, depending on Theresa May’s ability to do something isn’t exactly a recipe for success. 
Part of the dishonesty of the current PM and his government is that they are seeking to blame the opposition, the judges, the EU – anyone and everyone except the real culprit here, namely a disunited governing party.  And in the process, they are diverting the anger away from those who made a sensible Brexit (to the extent that there is such a thing) impossible, and on to those who would have been willing to deliver a more consensual outcome. 
There is another element to the dishonesty as well, which is the assumption that anger is to be found only on one side of the debate.  Unless they are arguing that Leave supporters are uniquely prone to anger and to expressing that anger through violence (which would be quite an admission in itself), their talk of riots and disorder ignores the possibility that the same degree of anger could end up being expressed by the other side if some of the worst scenarios arise.  What makes them think that some people’s anger at having their votes ‘stolen’ from them would be greater than other people’s anger at not being able to get medicines, losing their jobs and incomes, or losing future opportunities?  Implicit in their current approach is the idea that one sort of anger from one side in the debate has more legitimacy that any other sort of anger and is more likely to be expressed in street violence.  That latter part is in serious danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when whipped up by wild talk from irresponsible politicians.
There’s another disturbing aspect to this as well.  Even supposing that Leavers’ anger is more justified than that of Remainers, and even supposing that Leavers’ anger is more likely to be expressed violently (both of which are core to the threats emanating from Downing Street), when did it become a tenet of UK politics that the politicians must do what the mob demand, when they demand it?  Yet that’s what threats of riots and disorder amount to.
Stripping aside the rhetoric, the situation in which we find ourselves is remarkably simple to understand.  A majority voted to leave but left parliament to determine the date and terms of that departure.  Parliament has so far agreed three different dates but has been utterly unable to agree the terms.  The solution to that quandary isn’t to call for riots, it is either to elect a new parliament or else to hold another vote.  The first of those looks unlikely to resolve much (a hung parliament remains far and away the likeliest outcome), but either is easily achievable.  However, both require a delay in the departure date.  The real obstacles to progress on either are an obstinate PM who refuses to contemplate any delay and a divided opposition, some of whom seem to be more concerned about which individual should become temporary PM than about resolving the issue.  That's where the anger - on both sides - should more properly be directed.


Anonymous said...

It's impossible to devise a question/set of questions for any new referendum.

The original result has to be respected. The scenarios laid out in the government booklet of 2016 have to be respected (leave voters were not interested in "protecting jobs, a stronger economy and providing security" , full access to the single market and so on).

See what you can come up with.

John Dixon said...

"The original result has to be respected." That's easy enough to say, but the problem is that it doesn't define the how or the when, both of which were left to parliament to decide - and parliament has, thus far, failed. And whilst I might agree with you about what "leave voters were not interested in", we only 'know' that from opinion polls; the result itself doesn't tell us that, because the multiplicity of reasons for supporting a particular outcome was not on the ballot paper. Respecting the result isn't the same as respecting the opinions of those voting for the result as assessed via the medium of opinion polls.

It's not "impossible to devise a question/set of questions for any new referendum"; it's actually very easy. What is hard is devising a question which will be seen by all sides to be fair and legitimate, given the hole into which we have been dug.

There is little point including an option in any vote which parliament is unwilling to implement, which means that any vote held before a general election can only, realistically, include the options of a (possibly slightly tweaked) deal à la May or remain. If a general election is held first, then it will be between whatever options the new parliament is willing to implement - but the currently likeliest outcome of another hung parliament doesn't change much. Those who want 'no-deal' first need to elect a parliament a majority of whose members will support such an option. If they can't do so, then it's not any sort of remainer elite which is denying their wishes, it's their own failure to convince enough voters that no deal is the way to go. 'Democracy' is much more complex than a single vote on a single day.