The World

The Brexit Debate Has Become a Fight Over the Meaning of Democracy

Both sides say they’re fighting for what the people want. They’re both full of it.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson is fighting for British democracy—or so he claims.
Daniel Leal-Olivas—WPA Pool/Getty Images

Britain is entering another wild week of Brexit conflict, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson seeks to do everything in his power to stop Parliament from preventing a “no-deal” departure from the EU on Oct. 31. Opposition members of Parliament as well as rebel MPs from Johnson’s own Conservative Party are pushing through a bill that would force Johnson to ask the EU for an extension of the current deadline rather than leave without a deal, an act that many fear would have ruinous economic consequences.

Johnson is insistent on pulling the U.K. out of the EU on the current deadline of Oct. 31. He still wants to negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU by then, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely, and he’s repeatedly said he’s willing to leave without a deal if necessary. If the bill passes, he is threatening to call a new election before Oct. 31, which could determine whether the government asks for an extension. On Tuesday, Johnson lost his one-seat majority in Parliament when a member of his Conservative party defected to the Liberal Democrats.

As the debate rages, both sides claim to be fighting not only for the country’s best economic interests but for the future of its democracy. But many of the arguments for democratic legitimacy being deployed are pretty suspect.

Last week, Johnson announced that he would suspend Parliament for more than a month this fall, giving his political opponents less time to pass legislation to stop a no-deal. His rivals were quick to accuse him of undermining the countries democracy.

“When a prime minister who hasn’t won an election and who doesn’t have a majority decrees that Parliament will be shut down because he knows his plan for a disastrous no deal doesn’t have the votes, we say that is an attack on democracy which will be resisted,” said Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Johnson of acting like a “tin-pot dictator.” Protesters chanted “stop the coup” outside Parliament this week.

The significance of Johnson’s move has been a little overblown. Under normal circumstances, Parliament would break for three weeks in the fall for party conferences, so we’re only talking about a difference of a few working days. But, despite his denials, it’s pretty clear that Johnson is doing this for purely political reasons—to make life harder for his opponents—and that, at the very least, he is pushing the limits of the norms that underlie the U.K.’s unwritten constitution.

On the other hand, Johnson argues that he’s the one defending democracy. He vowed in his first speech to Parliament as prime minister “to restore trust in our democracy and fulfill the repeated promises of Parliament to the people by coming out of the European Union.”

The debate comes down to what, fundamentally, you think modern “democracy” is: a system in which the people set policies, or one in which the people select leaders they trust to set policies. Unfortunately, in this case, the debate is muddled by the fact that the people have done both and contradicted themselves.

Johnson’s case for democracy rests on the 2016 referendum in which 52 percent of British voters chose Brexit. He argues that thanks to political dithering, they have been continually prevented from achieving it. (The original Brexit deadline was back in March.)

Brexit opponents counter that the Brexit scenarios on offer—both Theresa May’s original withdrawal agreement as well as no-deal—are not what people voted for in 2016.

“Brexit campaigners promised we would continue to enjoy ‘the exact same benefits’ of being in the EU, while ‘taking back control’… these promises will be broken—not because the Government won’t keep them—but because they can’t be kept,” argues the People’s Vote Campaign, which favors a new Brexit referendum.

This argument is not as compelling as Remainers think it is. Yes, the Leave campaign, including Johnson himself, made misleading statements during the campaign, but if that were grounds for invalidating an election, there would be virtually no legitimate governments on the planet. And it’s certainly believable that most Leave supporters did not anticipate how messy and disruptive Brexit would turn out to be, but it was the responsibility of voters to take the risks of Brexit into account, and the responsibility of the Remain campaign to convince them of seriousness of these risks.

While, from the perspective of this non-British observer, Brexit seems like a very bad idea, the arguments of many Remainers and People’s Vote proponents also often seem to boil down to: The voters did something dumb, so it shouldn’t count. As an American in 2019, I certainly sympathize with the sentiment, but whatever that argument is, it’s not “democratic.”

But Johnson’s case is not all that strong either. The referendum asked voters only, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” It didn’t ask on what terms that departure would take place. That was left up to the country’s elected leaders to figure out.

In the 2017 general election, voters got a chance to select those leaders and put in place a government that is controlled—barely—by a Conservative-led coalition, but in which the majority of MPs either don’t want to leave the EU at all or don’t want to leave under the conditions Johnson is now proposing. Running on a hard-line Brexiteer platform, the U.K. Independence Party lost its only seat in that election.

Johnson is essentially arguing that to carry out the will of the people from 2016, he has to sideline and ignore the representatives they elected in 2017. (Johnson himself was, as Corbyn notes, elected this year not by “the people” but by the .002 percent of them who constitute the Conservative Party’s paid members.)

Moreover, if “democracy” requires leaving the EU no matter the cost, if a less-than-perfect Brexit is better than no Brexit at all, Johnson and other Brexiteers could have supported Theresa May’s original withdrawal agreement, which Parliament rejected three times last spring. Brexit could have happened five months ago. Instead, Parliament rejected it on the grounds that the controversial backstop provision—which would leave the U.K. in a customs union with Europe indefinitely in order to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland—was, you guessed it, “anti-democratic.” This is because it would leave the country stuck under an EU trade policy it would have no role in setting.

Any future free trade agreement that the U.K. would negotiate, with the EU, the U.S., or anyone else, will entail surrendering at least some sovereignty. That’s what trade agreements are. Johnson can argue that a customs union with Europe is a worse outcome than “WTO rules” or testing its luck with the Trump administration, but that’s a question of policy, not governance.

Brexiteers understood from the beginning that arguments promising democratic empowerment were more compelling to voters than the economic ones their opponents emphasized. The Leave campaign promised, in a slogan devised by Dominic Cummings, Brexit’s Rasputin, that citizens could “take back control” from unelected Brussels bureaucrats. (A lot of this was also a coded anti-immigrant appeal, but that’s another issue.) Despite its liberal founding principles, you don’t have to be a UKIP voter to see that the EU has a democratic legitimacy problem. Further European integration has been repeatedly rejected by voters in country after country, yet proceeds apace.

Some cynicism is warranted. Politicians and voters everywhere in the world invariably describe the policy outcomes that accord with their own preferences as being more “democratic.” Neither a no-deal Brexit, nor the backstop, nor asking for a delay, nor a new referendum are more democratic outcomes. They’re policy preferences justified by their proponents’ cherry-picked readings of public sentiment.

Thankfully, when no side has a clear mandate and there’s crippling deadlock, the British political system provides a way out: A new general election can be called and each of the parties can sell its preferred course of action to the voters. This now appears to be the most likely scenario facing the country, though it seems like an awful lot of agitation and wasted time could have been avoided if it had been done months ago. Labour says it won’t support a new election until the bill ruling out a no-deal Brexit becomes law, but however the timing shakes out, it looks increasingly likely that there will be a new vote before Brexit is finalized.

The voters may not choose the course of action that their leaders prefer, and it’s possible they may only create more confusion if Parliament remains deadlocked. But at this point, at least no one can say they don’t understand the consequences of what they’re voting on.