Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
As we are often told, Brexit has the largest ever mandate from the British people, not only from the referendum, but also from the 2017 general election, and, in Parliament since then, the overwhelming majorities for the 2015 Referendum Act and March’s vote to trigger Article 50. Although there are some holdouts, few really believe it possible to reverse those results, and those few are not in a position to act.
It is therefore odd that we find ourselves where we are – in the middle of what can only be called a godawful mess. It is also odd that no-one is really surprised by the chaos and bad blood at the negotiating table. If there is a mandate, which is a type of authority, then we should really be enjoying certainty and direction.
Yet there is no clarity. The UK has done so little work on defining what Brexit will actually mean that 15 months later there are still major debates under way within the Cabinet, within the governing party, and across the opposition parties. The Labour Party, which might easily find itself in power soon, has replaced a policy of constructive ambiguity with an ambiguous policy of, er…. Meanwhile, the one party whose raison d’être was Brexit has collapsed into a rabble of fruitcakes and closet racists (to coin a phrase), and has nothing sensible to say about it at all.
Why trigger Article 50 in March, when a delay until October would have got the French and German elections out of the way, and therefore a little more attention from the people who matter in Europe? Indeed, why was the phony war period from June to March devoid of any serious work on what Brexit might be? The mandate referred to above covers so many incompatible possibilities that one might be forgiven for suggesting it is all but meaningless; the Government tried to limit Parliament’s say in defining Brexit, without doing any hard definitional graft itself. Why drop the election bomb after negotiations should have started? And why did neither major party campaign on the one major issue which needed to be resolved? Indeed, far from deciding anything, the election re-opened most of the issues. The end result is that well over a year after the referendum, no-one knows what Britain wants from Brexit.
David Davis’ public utterances imply that he feels that Britain’s post-Brexit position should be constructed jointly with the EU in order to get the win-win, yet desirable as this is, it is patently unrealistic. In the first place, most EU leaders see Brexit as a massive act of self-harm on the part of the British, and have already moved on. But second, as any casual observer of European politics could have told him, any EU position itself is a carefully negotiated compromise, which is why the EU is spectacularly bad at negotiating with outside entities (as even supporters understand). Michel Barnier simply doesn’t have the clout to adjust his view without a minimum of 27 phone calls to busy people. Britain might have had a chance had it come into the negotiations with a stable idea of where it wanted to be in the future, but it is in the worst possible position now. What looks to Liam Fox like blackmail is simply the intransigence borne of a complex balance of interests (which no longer, of course, include Britain’s). Barnier’s reply to criticism might well be that at least the EU got its position sorted out in advance, unlike some others he could mention.
Britain is spectacularly badly-placed to resolve these matters to its own satisfaction. The unloved Prime Minister has weakened herself; she has no obvious successor, while the Leader of the Opposition is a disgrace. Post-referendum British politics are driven by Brexit. As a result we are represented abroad by a patently inadequate Foreign Secretary, whose one qualification for the job is that he backed the winning side in February, apparently after tossing a coin. We have a Trade Secretary who is forbidden to negotiate any trade deals, reduced to sucking up to the sort of leader who has threatened to bomb schools in his own country. The careers of all three Brexit ministers were pretty well over, until resurrected by Theresa May’s domestic need to include prominent Leavers. On the other hand, the major players pre-referendum (who destroyed their own careers, so one need not feel sympathy for them) are, in their prime, exiled from British politics. George Osborne is having a lovely time editing the Evening Schadenfreude.
Why are we here? Of course, the term ‘mandate’ is being horribly misused. It is usually derived from a model of representative democracy, a type of authority attaching to a government which has tested its proposals in a democratic forum (most obviously an election). The Brexit style of ‘mandate’ is a different beast entirely. It confers no authority, and attaches to no-one. It is a free-floating statement (in this case, about where the UK should not be). It creates a problem, and demands that it be solved. It includes no solution, and selects no cadre of people to devise or implement one. It recognises no variance across constituencies or factions (such as that, for example, only two of the four nations within the UK voted for it). Governments don’t seek it, they are forced to react to it.
The referendum ‘mandate’ derives from a model of direct democracy where the General Will is paramount, based on the revolutionary philosophy of Rousseau and Marx rather than the humane, careful politics of Montesquieu and Madison. It is the chief tool of ‘people power’, a malleable fiction which has traditionally been the recourse of dictators or (as in the British case) political parties unable to resolve their internal conflicts.
This is not a pro-Remain article, in case anyone feels like branding your correspondent a ‘Remoaner’. Rather, my point is that a referendum is a horrible way of making political decisions, and we are where we are as a direct result. All Britons, Leave supporters as well as Remainers, should be disappointed with the current situation, which is un petit dejeuner d’un chien. Had they relied on the Parliamentary route, Leavers might have had to wait longer for liberation from Europe, but the UK position would have been honed and tested.
People power is not an automatic solution for every political ill; neither does it necessarily produce better government. Were it not for the politics of direct democracy, expanded consultation and immediate decisions, we might currently be led by Osborne as Prime Minister, facing Yvette Cooper or even David Miliband across the despatch box. Does anyone really think that the standard of government would have been any lower?