The end of Britain/the end of democracy?
In 1999, the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens published a book called 'The Abolition of Britain' that described the constitutional changes taking place under Tony Blair's first government as a 'slow motion coup d'état'.
I haven't read the book myself, but the theme and title come to mind now that it seems clear that Brexit will only happen in name only, if at all. The Establishment forces have been organising for two years now, and they have just about made it. When the Irish government and the EU in concert work to exercise a veto over British constitutional arrangements and the British Establishment shrugs its shoulders or eggs them on as they have been, the game would seem to be up.
The idea that a 'hard border' on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit will somehow 'cause' violence to break out is a political device invented by politicians and spin doctors. It is an assertion which serves a crucial political purpose (as well as stamping all over any serious notions of causality and agency).
Sinn Fein is certainly using the issue to stir up trouble, with Leo Varadkar's government a happy accomplice, but from what I have seen and heard there is no desire from the ex-IRA to go back to shooting and bombing people. Rather, the EU together with the Irish government and anti-Brexit campaigners have been using the IRA as a silent threat to influence public - and political - opinion in Britain. You might say they have been employing the IRA as their armed wing - in the name of peace.
(We could even call this the first instance of an EU Army being used, even if it is an old terrorist army that doesn't officially exist anymore.)
I don't see much point in getting too angry about this. This is political power in operation. Everything about the anti-Brexit movement, from their concerted and successful efforts to dominate the airwaves to their work in Parliament and Whitehall - has screamed political power. The winners get to describe what is happening and what happened and what will happen, and that is the case now. It only goes to show how much they want to keep Britain in the EU and unable to control its own destiny as a sovereign democracy.
The question is: what next? Things will never be the same again, that is for sure. I certainly have no crystal ball, but a few thoughts have been leaping to mind (with the emphasis on 'leaping'), including the following:
- This is the end of British democracy;
- This is the end of the United Kingdom as a notionally independent state; and
- This will give a big push to renewed independence efforts, c.f. what has happened with the SNP in Scotland.
I wouldn't say any of those things with any certainty, but I think they are worth reflecting on.
On the first question, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, and the United Kingdom has never been that. What the anti-Brexit efforts have shown is that our elites are alive and well and aren't willing to let democracy prevail if it doesn't match their own wishes and interests. On one level you could say, 'fair enough' to them - though it'd be nice if they didn't disguise their own will and preference behind ideas of absolute, rational good for everyone.
When I was thinking about this the other day, it brought to mind an essay by a Bulgarian political scientist called Ivan Krastev. In this essay, written well before Brexit, Krastev wrote "Elites approach elections as opportunities for manipulating the people rather than listening to them (Big Data makes voting marginal as a source of feedback)."
But with the EU referendum vote, they struggled to do that. The question asked, Leave or Remain, went beyond our normal 'managed democracy' into the realm of existentials, asking us a fundamental question about who we are and where we see our destiny. The likes of David Cameron, George Osborne, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg did their best to manage us, but we got away from them, just.
Not for long though. It looks as though will have to get back in our box again. But how long until we pop out again? What organisations will appear looking to renew this democratic revolution of sorts?
We will have to wait and see (and get busy).