Today, across the UK, it is as if the vote to leave the European Union had never happened. Despite the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, asserting that 'Brexit means Brexit', all of her actions, as well as those of the people around her and even, increasingly, European players too, such as Angela Merkel and others, points to a desire to kick the Brexit ball into the long grass where it cannot be seen and they hope, may never be recovered.
May has indicated that the earliest she would invoke Article 50 and trigger negotiations for the withdrawal would be next year at the earliest. So what happened to the assertion of former Prime Minister, David Cameron, that he would enact the people's will with immediate effect? We should recall that this vote was the single biggest mandate in British electoral history and yet it remains unfulfilled.
Instead, various groups, including middle-class hippies dancing in dresses made of the European Union flag, members of the unelected second chamber in the British Parliament, as well as a law firm and even one of the candidates standing to become the new Leader of the Opposition either assert that the public were duped when they voted, or that they were too ignorant to vote, or that such a momentous decision ought not have been left to them in the first place. So much for democracy!
What does this all mean for the future? Well, if we are not very careful what it points to is how democracy is now upheld in principle but not in practice in one of the birth places of democracy. It reveals in sharp contrast the elite's disdain for the people that they govern and it can only lead, much further afield, to more significant social challenges as people will eventually have to assert themselves more forcefully for their voices to be heard. How much better it would be to hear them now, now that they have spoken, and to start taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny.
Brexit would come with many problems, but it would reveal unimagined new possibilities too. Concerns over migration certainly featured in the debate. These need to be confronted head-on rather than by-passed by regulatory procedures. Foremost among the rationales to leave though was a desire for greater control and more of a say in decision-making. And while many young people wished to remain in the European Union, far more chose not to vote at all.
What we confront in all countries the world over today is a fear of the future, combined with a hatred of the masses that is paralysing development and opportunity for all.
Brexit and its aftermath continues to wreak havoc on British politics. David Cameron’s wreckless and unsuccessful gamble may eventually lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom but that is in the long term. In the short term, the failure of the Remain campaign, and Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived culpability in it, is tearing the Labour party apart. This may be the week that finally breaks Labour.
The co-ordinated string of resignations from the shadow cabinet that followed the Brexit vote was designed to pressure Corbyn to resign as leader of the party. MPs have never accepted Corbyn’s leadership and the Brexit debacle presents the opportunity to replace him before changes to the party’s rulebook that make his position more secure are pushed through by his supporters at the Labour Party Conference in September. MPs recognise that this is a crucial moment in the battle for the future of the Labour Party. Many are now prepared to gamble their own political careers on that future.
Deputy leader Tom Watson warned Corbyn that he has lost the confidence of MPs in a gesture many are seeing as a firm elbow towards the exit.
But Corbyn, backed by key allies such as the shadow chancellor, John Mcdonnell, shows no sign of backing down. He fully expects to defeat a leadership challenge.
Corbyn’s confidence comes from two sources. He remains very popular with the party membership, which is now decisive in any leadership contest and seems content with the current direction of travel. Any possible challenger, therefore, would have to be able to trump that popularity with the rank and file and there aren’t that many of them in the Parliamentary Labout Party at present.
It’s a familiar cliché that the Conservative Party is the most successful political party in the democratic world. Once called the natural party of government, it has been in power for most of the last 150 years and, for good or ill, has shaped modern Britain. The UK is a conservative country in all senses of the word.
But the past four decades have demonstrated that the modern Conservative Party can no longer be trusted in its role as the guardian of British institutions.
The revolutionary free-market zealotry of the Thatcherites and their successors not only put the social fabric of Britain under severe strain, but also undermined the credibility of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Of the three pillars of High Toryism; church, state and monarchy, Britons only seem to still like the latter.
The decline in Tory respect for British institutions has also been on full display, not least in David Cameron’s willingness to risk the union’s survival twice – first in the Scottish Independence referendum, and then, probably fatally, in the EU membership referendum.
The way that the EU referendum campaigns – both for and against British membership of the bloc – have been handled has been redolent of game playing. As an academic who studies game theory, a number of parallels are evident. And, from the displays of nastiness on both sides of the campaign, it is clear that Britain needs to forge a more productive path forward in its relationship with the EU – whether it remains or leaves. My work on a new type of game theory may offer some insights.
From the moment David Cameron went to Brussels in February 2016 to secure better terms for Britain’s EU membership, the games began. Having already promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, he was no doubt hoping to use the shadow of a Brexit vote as a bargaining chip in his negotiations.
Essentially, he argued that if the other leaders agreed to the UK’s demands for concessions, he would be able to convince the British public to vote to remain in the EU. If the UK didn’t get what it wanted, the implication was that Britain would exit and weaken the EU for the remaining nations. The looming referendum was designed to increase the UK’s bargaining power, but it fell flat and the other leaders called his bluff, making limited concessions.
One of the constant arguments raised by critics of the EU is that it is “undemocratic”. Those arguing for the UK to vote to leave in the June referendum present it as an opportunity to hand control of British affairs back to the British parliament, the only body with a mandate to make decisions for the country.
On the face of it, the EU has a democratic structure. The European Commission is not elected but it is fully accountable to the European Parliament. And all the EU member states are represented in the Council of Ministers. But does that make it democratic or does it have, as some argue, a democratic deficit?
I suggest that we expect certain characteristics to be present in the structures of any liberal democracy. They should be representative, transparent and accountable. If these characteristics are present then the democratic institutions will normally enjoy legitimacy and authority. So I propose to discuss the presence or absence in the EU of these characteristics.
The EU is undoubtedly representative – more so than many national parliaments, including Britain’s. The European Parliament is made up of MEPs from all 28 EU member states, each elected using various forms of proportional representation (unlike the House of Commons, which is elected through a widely criticised first-past-the-post system).
Smaller states are over-represented in the European Parliament and voter turnout at elections is usually significantly lower than turnout for national government elections – although this is hardly the European Parliament’s fault.
Twelve minutes into his “big statement” budget, Chancellor George Osborne made a strong plea for the British public to vote to remain in the European Union in the June referendum.
Citing the Office for Budget Responsibility, he argued that voting to leave would result in “disruptive uncertainty”. It would affect interest rates, the exchange rate, and possibly international investment decisions.
In fact, the OBR report is less robustly certain of the outcome of a potential Brexit vote than the chancellor suggested in his speech. It notes that the evidence is scant, and that any effects would take time to be felt, and would depend on the subsequent negotiation process.
There is certainly more rhetoric than hard fact in much of the business case for membership to date. However, the OBR’s assessment of the available evidence confirms that markets do not like the state of uncertainty surrounding Britain’s position on the EU.