On Brexit, why are Americans so against democracy for Britain?
This op ed appeared in the Star Tribune on November 19th, 2019
Once, democracy was considered a good thing. People making decisions on political matters affecting them, peacefully at the ballot box, was celebrated.
During the Cold War, and in the hot war against the Nazis before that, the fact that we were democracies was one of the things that made “us” in the West (I’m an immigrant from Britain) better than “them.” When the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago and communism collapsed, we in the West cheered when the long-oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe and even Russia itself went to the ballot box for the first time.
But times change, it seems. Recently, electorates have developed the habit of voting in ways that elite classes don’t like. Consequently, we’ve witnessed a strange phenomenon — an uprising of well-off, powerful elites against the average Joe and his use of pen and ballot paper. Brexit, and much reaction to it in America, is a classic case.
In Britain’s 2015 general election, David Cameron’s Conservatives were unexpectedly elected on a manifesto promising “a straight in-out referendum on our membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.” Parliament duly passed the European Union Referendum Act 2015, legislating for this referendum.
The government sent a leaflet to every home in Britain titled “Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK.” It read: “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
The referendum was conducted June 23, 2016, asking the question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The options were: “Remain a member of the European Union” and “Leave the European Union.”
“Leave” won with 17.4 million votes — the most ever cast for anything in British history — 52% of those cast.
In the 2017 general election, 579 Conservative and Labour MPs — 89% of all those elected — were returned on manifestos explicitly committing them to honoring the result of the referendum. But, once back in Westminster, the promises made to the proles on the stump were discarded and Parliament has since done everything it can to veto the people’s vote of 2016.
The pro-E.U. Liberal Democrats, praised in the recent Star Tribune editorial “Stakes are high in U.K.’s snap election,” (Nov. 5), were the most brazen of all. They had spent years calling for such a referendum, indeed, such a commitment was in their manifestos for the 2010 and 2015 elections. In 2007, party leader Vince Cable wrote that they wanted to table a parliamentary motion calling “for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.” In 2008, they again called for a referendum and party leader Nick Clegg said, “Nobody in this country under the age of 51 has ever been asked that simple question. That includes half of all MPs. We’ve been signed up to Europe by default: two generations who have never had their say.”
Jo Swinson, who is now party leader (the Liberal Democrats have a penchant for regicide that would make a Roman emperor queasy), said that “the Liberal Democrats would like to have a referendum on the major issue of whether we are in or out of Europe.”
They got it. They lost it. And now they want to ignore it. Swinson has called for the referendum to be rerun, even while saying that she would ignore the result if “leave” won again. They do not see elections as opportunities for electorates to make decisions, but for electorates to OK decisions which have already been taken for them. And if they don’t, they can vote again until they do.
These people are neither very liberal nor particularly democratic.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board is right that there is much at stake in Britain’s election. This year marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre, in which yeomanry, police and soldiers attacked a Manchester demonstration demanding the vote for the working classes. Up to 700 people were injured, 18 were killed. The British people took a long and occasionally bloody road to secure their right, not only to vote, but to have that vote count. Among the journey’s highlights were the Peasant’s Revolt, the Civil War, the Chartist movement and the Suffragettes.
They have earned the right for their democratically expressed wishes to be acted upon, even when the Editorial Board thinks they are wrong.
John Phelan, a graduate of Birkbeck College, University of London, is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.
Photo credit: Number 10