Brexit Reveals a Damaged Democracy

The drunken celebrations in Parliament Square as the UK broke from the European Union provide an apt metaphor for the whole affair.

People celebrate in Parliament Square on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. Simon Dawson/Reuters

At midnight Central European Time on January 31, 2020, the UK left the European Union (EU) by automatic operation of law under Article 50 of the Union’s Treaty. Having signed and ratified a withdrawal agreement earlier in the month, the UK and the EU finally parted ways. Many of those who voted “leave” celebrated in the hours before, hundreds of them gathering on Parliament Square to hear speeches from some of Brexit’s more prominent supporters, few of whom are known on the world stage.

Elsewhere, however, opponents of Brexit licked their wounds and either avoided watching the news or raised a glass to the passing of an international accord which lasted 47 years, built on the rubble of a war fought decades before, and designed specifically to stop such conflicts happening again.

The morning after though, very little had changed, and nor would it thanks to the transitional period that was part of the Withdrawal Agreement; this will maintain a status quo in the business relations between the EU and the UK until January 1, 2021. So, the sun still rose in the east, the weather in London was still cold and grey, the National Health Service (NHS) still hadn’t seen a penny of the 350 million pounds per week that had been promised in the referendum, and Brexit supporters took to social media to crow, quite erroneously, that all of the dire warnings about the consequences of Brexit were a myth, or “Project Fear”, made up by the Remainers. Funnily enough, they did exactly the same after the referendum itself, even before Article 50 had been invoked, and were just as misguided there. Sensible heads on social media told them to come back in 11 months, but for many observers, this was just more of the same: shouting.

Ever since the Conservative government of former Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold the referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU in 2016, people across the country have been shouting at each other. In Parliament, in the streets, in the papers, on television, and especially on social media, Brexit unleashed a tidal wave of anger and division, splitting communities and even families as the war of words over Britain’s place in a globalized world played out over the last three-and-half-years.

Shouting, shouting, always shouting. “We won, you lost, get over it.” “Take Back Control.” “Leave means Leave.” “No deal is better than a bad deal.” “We’ll hold all the cards.” “Our Independence Day!” “Surrender Act.” “The Metropolitan Elite.” “Bollocks to Brexit.” “Oven-ready deal.” “Get Brexit Done.” So much shouting. So many vacuous slogans to shout, lots of angry people to shout them—even though before 2014, nobody really cared about the EU, certainly not enough to shout about it.

A Message Overwhelmed by Politics

The result of the 2019 General Election showed us that while people are hearing and reacting to the slogans, nobody is really listening, at least not to the underlying message.

The problems began with the referendum itself, which boiled down the complexities of a 43-year multi-layered, inter-governmental legal, economic and political relationship into a simplistic binary proposition: “Do you want to stay in the EU – Yes or No?” The handling of the referendum was incompetent through and through, from the framing of the question to the decision by lawmakers to make the referendum an advisory one, more like a huge public opinion poll rather than a plebiscite that was constitutionally binding. The latter would have meant additional measures, such as imposing requirements for a turnout threshold or a super-majority, but these were avoided by making it advisory. This also meant that the referendum would not be subject to the Venice Convention, an internationally recognized standard for conducting such votes.

As soon as the result was known, the winners claimed it as a clear mandate for the UK to leave the EU, ignoring the carefully worded caveats in the EU Referendum Act under which the ballot was held. As a result, what was meant to be advisory magically became constitutionally mandated, much to the disgust of the losers, who pointed out that the turnout would have been too low, the super majority would not have been reached, and later added that the way the campaign was conducted, especially the irregularities of the Leave campaign finances, would have meant that the whole thing would probably have been voided under the Venice Convention.

The final result was close: 51.9 percent of those who voted wanted to leave, 48.1 percent wanted to stay. In terms of the overall electorate however, that represented 37.4 percent voting to leave and 34.7 percent to remain, with 27.6 percent not voting: hardly an overwhelming majority (or even a majority at all), especially when one considers that up to five million people, including EU residents in the UK and UK nationals living in Europe, were denied a vote.

While the Leave victory was quickly translated into the tautological slogans of “Leave means Leave” and “Brexit means Brexit”, there was no definition of what either actually meant in reality, and as the political mud-slinging began, the public’s real message—the one they really delivered in the referendum itself—was largely forgotten.

What the voters actually said was this: “We don’t know either, we’re just as split over Europe as Parliament is.”

In an earlier age of political discourse where politicians actually listened to their constituents, this message would have been heard loud and clear, and a moderating voice would have emerged fairly quickly to propose a way forward which would have taken into account the arguments, hopes, and fears of both sides. Members of Parliament (MPs) would have had the confidence to go back to their constituencies and explain clearly that their job was to represent all their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them, and that after the referendum, that responsibility had not changed, and they had to represent Remain voters as well as Leave supporters.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum it was hoped that may happen, especially given the Conservative government’s tiny majority at the time. But it was a forlorn hope; the shouting got louder, especially from eurosceptic Conservative MPs and their supporters, who felt that they had won. As a result, many other MPs, especially those of the Labour opposition, were bullied into accepting that they had to accept the so-called “will of the people” and deliver what the “winners” said they had won: Brexit.

This was underlined by the combative nature of British politics, which is personified in the aggressive, full-blooded, but ultimately meaningless theatrics of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons: 40 minutes every week where every MP turns up to shout and bray, where MPs can ask a question of the Prime Minister and receive some glib non-answer in return. This is the circus that is shown around the world, and which does the mother of parliaments no justice whatsoever. This circus was backed up by a full-blown war of words on social media, protests outside Parliament, and marches of millions of people through the capital. Once the Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers must hold a vote over starting the process to leave, the die was cast, and the public’s real message was lost in the fog of battle.

For the three-and-a-half years that this battle raged, deadlines for the UK to pass the necessary legislation, the Withdrawal Agreement, came and went, as did Conservative prime ministers and secretaries of state for Brexit. Time was wasted on a general election in 2017 which the Tories hoped would give them a clear mandate, but which actually lost them their majority in the House of Commons, making the situation worse.

However, the message from the people in 2017 was consistent with the one given in 2016: “We’re still completely split over the issue”, they said. Again, there was a brief moment when it was hoped this may produce some compromise, or a sliver of clarity, but by then the various political armies were far too entrenched in their respective positions to care about what the public was really saying any more.

The Impact of the General Election

The consistency of message persisted when, as a result of one of the extensions, the UK was, ironically, forced to participate in the European Parliamentary elections. While the pro-Brexit parties got the largest number of seats, an analysis of the actual votes cast showed that the UK was still evenly split over the issue of Europe. However, once again, the shouting continued from the pro-Brexit side, and as before, that message faded into the mist.

In the UK, the parliamentary impasse came to a head at the end of 2019. As the latest deadline approached on October 31, MPs boxed the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in by voting for legislation to stop a damaging “No deal” Brexit, which would have seen the UK literally fall out of the EU, bringing an overnight change to the relationship between the two with no transition. This was considered the worst possible outcome as all the agreements which covered the movement of goods, people, and services between the UK and the EU would have ceased at midnight European time, 11pm GMT, on that day. The list of problems this would cause to the UK was immense, and almost everyone (or at least everyone who truly understood the implications) agreed that this was something that should be avoided at all costs, although at this point the hardline Brexit supporters said it would be fine and the UK would just continue to trade under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Needless to say, this was then argued over as well, especially from those who actually understood how the WTO operated.

Johnson had previously stated that he would rather “die in a ditch” than ask for another extension. However, with no agreement on any other way forward, he reluctantly (and rather childishly,by not signing the request letter) requested another extension to the process until January 31, 2020. Johnson called for a general election to end the impasse; his opponents wanted a second referendum, but in the end they agreed, and on December 12, 2019, voters went to the polls for the third time in four years.

The campaign was brutal, re-igniting the public war of words over Brexit, which drowned out all the other domestic issues, many of which had simply been left to drift during three-and-a-half years of Parliamentary paralysis. While the government’s opponents launched a traditional campaign by producing a manifesto, making speeches at rallies, media interviews, television debates and posting messages on social media, the Conservative approach was radical, and matched the approach of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, which Boris Johnson led.

Everything was focused on a single message: “Get Brexit Done”. Psychologically, it’s a simple, direct, emotional slogan that matches the vagueness of “Take Back Control” which cut through the expert debate in the EU referendum, and, as author Douglas Adams described when one of his characters tried to invent the Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything, “sounds significant without actually tying you down to meaning anything at all”.  The Conservative manifesto was thin and vague, with a minimal amount of text and plenty of pictures; apart from more investing in the NHS and in the police, which they’d already announced, it was very little more than a shopping list of aspirations which they might get around to if they could “Get Brexit Done”.

Johnson himself took this message around the country, focusing on those constituencies where his Labour opponents held the seat, but where there were a high proportion of voters who had supported leaving in the referendum. Such was the focus on this strategy that Johnson refused to take part in all but the big set-piece debates on television, and even refused to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, even though all the other main party leaders had been subjected to his forensic scrutiny. Despite the negative press from this, Johnson continued to front the campaign stunts on the ground, and so the media were forced to cover these instead, and the broadcasters were only able to maintain the balance in their coverage (as required by the Representation of the People Act) by showing Johnson’s carefully stage-managed stump speeches. At one visit to a Leeds dairy the day before polling, he even avoided a live interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain by strategically choosing to inspect an industrial refrigeration unit instead – and social media lit up with “Boris hides in a fridge” memes.

The reasoning behind this approach was clear: Boris Johnson is a carefully constructed character whose off-the-cuff, dishevelled appearance is deliberately designed to allow him to say anything he likes, even if it’s not true, and yet people will forgive him because, like them, he seems forgetful and bumbling and, well, human. Given that Johnson is an Oxford classics scholar who reads Greek poetry in the original Greek and punctuates his speeches with Latin, this is quite an achievement, but for the media, pinning the label of “dishonest” on him, which would instantly end the career of many other politicians, became like trying to nail fog to a wall.

If you’re thinking this is familiar, you’re right; this is exactly the same tactic used by Donald Trump, the millionaire businessman who convinced swathes of working class Americans that he was in their corner just because, like them, he “says what he thinks”, even when the media was queueing up to demonstrate that what he said was largely a pack of lies.

With Johnson, the fact-checkers went into overdrive, but to no avail; the prime minister and his team of digital dark arts diviners seemed immune to the normal rules of electioneering. As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was being interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC, the Conservative Press Office Twitter account briefly renamed itself FactCheckUK, abusing its blue tick verification, but only getting a verbal rebuke from Twitter, a half-hearted “don’t do it again”. Meanwhile, actor Ralf Little, who did something similar to highlight the Conservatives’ mendacity, was suspended by Twitter instead.

Struggles in the Labour Party

Meanwhile, the Labour Party struggled with a leader who had been embroiled in a long-running row about how he handled allegations of anti-Semitism in the party, and whose message on Brexit was similarly incompetent. Labour have never been able to get their heads around the fact that many of their traditional seats had a majority of people who voted to Leave, and while that was largely because these areas had also suffered the worst effects of nine years of austerity following the global banking crisis, it didn’t help that the Labour Party itself was split on Europe with the far left of the party being pro-Brexit. As a result, while the majority of Labour lawmakers and party supporters were pro-Europe, the leadership remained firmly on the fence, trying to assuage both views with a message that was basically: “We’ll negotiate a new deal and then put it to the people, but we won’t tell you which side we’ll support in the subsequent referendum.” They tried to play both sides off against the middle, but compared to “Get Brexit Done” it was meaningless drivel. The voters saw through it immediately, and with Corbyn under constant attack from a largely right-wing press, they were not impressed. Labour lost more than two million votes.

The unashamedly pro-Brexit Liberal Democrats, who went into the European elections earlier in 2019 with the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”, tried to replicate that by simply calling for the Brexit process to be revoked rather than supporting a second referendum, which would open them up to claims that they were undemocratic. Predictably, they couldn’t cut through the slogans either and their leader even lost her seat. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party basically promised the same, but backed both a second referendum and a new independence referendum, a message that went down well in a country which voted strongly in favour of remaining in 2016.

When it came, the result was no surprise, especially given that the polls had consistently given the Conservatives a large lead throughout the campaign. Johnson turned a minority into a sweeping majority of 80 seats, something his predecessor had singularly failed to do in 2017. The post-mortems began immediately. But while the Labour leader signalled he would step down, he would not do so immediately. This suggested that the far-left wing of his party, having finally gotten a leader they wanted when Corbyn was elected in 2015, were more interested in ensuring that someone else from the left took over. Again,  they were not interested in listening to the voters, who consistently told their campaign staff on the doorstep that they didn’t vote Labour because they simply didn’t trust Corbyn and the left wing.

Meanwhile, anyone who dared to suggest that Labour needed a more centrist leader, like Tony Blair, who actually could be elected, was shouted down by the left-wingers on social media. Their favorite tactic was to dismiss the people making those arguments as “Red Tories”.

The Conservatives used simple psychology to cut through the complexity of the issues, just as Vote Leave did in 2016. Bringing facts and evidence to a battle fought on emotional slogans was like bringing a knife to a gunfight, and the Conservatives knew it from the start; Johnson had even tested out some slogans in Parliament after he became prime minister and was shouting “Get Brexit Done” well before the election was even called.

The weekend after the election saw the media awash with people who said they voted Conservative despite never supporting the party before and hating the principles that they represented. But they said they just wanted the row over Brexit to be done, and the man who said that he would do what they wanted, and pretty well nothing else, eventually—and in some cases reluctantly—got their vote.

Even in his victory speech the morning after, Johnson seemed to acknowledge that this had been a significant factor in his victory, saying that these voters had “leant their vote” to the Conservatives to “Get Brexit Done” and that he recognized this meant the party had a responsibility to deliver on that. This was a far cry from 2017 when many voters leant their vote to Corbyn’s Labour Party because they thought he might stand up to the government, and who, unsurprisingly, after two years of seeing Labour doing almost nothing to repay that debt, and remaining firmly on the fence over Brexit, deserted the party in droves this time round, taking many disillusioned Labour stalwarts with them.

It is clear from the results, however, that the Conservatives did not win the election; rather, Labour lost it. The Conservative share of the vote only rose marginally, while Labour’s support plummeted as voters deserted them for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens. The Conservatives, having effectively unified the Leave vote and nullified the threat of the Brexit Party, who wanted an immediate departure, emerged victorious because the Remain vote was split four ways.

Post-Election

Now, while the opposition parties lick their wounds—and in some cases, find new leaders—the blame game has begun. It’s not just the political parties who are under fire, but the media; not just the largely right-wing press, but the BBC as well, with many pointing out that more could have been done, and indeed, should have been done, to challenge the more outlandish claims that were made by some of the parties involved. Social media is also in the spotlight after research indicated that 88 percent of Conservative political adverts on Facebook contained untruths, compared to none of their opponents’ ads.

One of Britain’s leading experts on polling, Professor Sir John Curtice, pointed out after the election that the support for Leave parties now only accounted for 47 percent of votes cast, compared to 52 percent of votes for parties who oppose Brexit (if you include Labour in that category), an outcome which matched the findings of opinion polls which have consistently shown a small majority in favour of Remain since 2017. Once again the real message from the country is that after three-and-a-half years of debate over the EU, they’re still almost evenly split over the UK’s position in it. But now that Boris Johnson has a large, working majority, it’s safe to say that message will be totally ignored. Again.

The problem at the heart of this issue, is that, as Professor Chris Grey of Royal Holloway has pointed out: “it was a vote against something, EU membership, without being a vote for anything that had been defined. That has been the underlying truth in all the years that have followed.” The problem for the UK now is that in the future, that definition will largely be crafted by others, including the EU and all the other countries that the UK wants agreements with. “Taking back control” seems a long way away; as Pascal Lamy of the WTO pointed out, this will be the first negotiation in history where both parties started off with free trade and discussed what barriers to erect.

Despite that, the mandate for Johnson is clear: the only message he has heard is that Britain wants to “Get Brexit Done”, and while the shouting continues—inside Parliament, outside its doors, and on social media—it is clear that nobody in the Conservative Party is going to waste energy trying to find out what the British public really wants now that the party has a clear majority in the Commons.

And so it was that on January 31, 2020, the UK left the EU by automatic operation of law, and the drunken celebrations in Parliament Square provided an apt metaphor for the whole affair.

Like a reveller who was late to the party and was determined to get drunk because they hated the host, the UK spent much of the time arguing with all the other guests. With the party carrying on and the rest of the EU standing together, especially on new measures to stamp out tax avoidance, the UK has flounced out, wandering away drunkenly, alone, into the night, propped up only by hubris and their own sense of self-importance, desperately hoping that when the hangover wears off the next morning, somebody, somewhere, will tell them they’re still friends.

Russell Merryman is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the London College of Communication, former editor-in-chief of web and new media at Al Jazeera English, prior to which he was a broadcast and multimedia journalist, presenter and editor at the BBC. He is also a contributing editor for The BRICS Post. You can follow him on Twitter @merryarty.

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