Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Democratic fundamentalism is now the most serious threat to freedom in the West. The belief that the wishes of a momentary majority of the electorate are enough to bring about radical and irreversible change has already sent liberal democracy back in Poland and Hungary. It has laid the Republican party low, and threatens the Labour party with extinction. It risks bringing the Union of England and Scotland, so successful for 300 years, to a messy and entirely unnecessary end. It has deepened divisions within England, between its productive, dynamic and outward looking cities, and its decaying, ageing, post-industrial towns, to the point that the country may be impossible to govern.
Lacking a codified constitution, and with a political class no longer versed in British constitutional history, we ended up with the wrong kind of referendum. The proper way to leave would have been to elect a pro-Brexit government that then put a deal it had negotiated with the EU to the people who would have had something concrete to vote on. Instead the very vagueness of what Brexit was to entail allowed the leave campaign to fight a highly successful culture war and marshalled a revolt of the tax-eaters against the tax-payers. My side were too timid, disorganised and boxed in by government policy to match them. It is no good for us to complain that the leave campaign lied: we knew that was how they would campaign, and failed to prepare for it. As Barack Obama used to say, “politics ain’t beanbag.”
Having spent the last 40 years campaigning to overturn the result of the last referendum on Europe, Brexiteers now insist that this one should, like the revelations of Mohammed, be final. They claimed that new generations who hadn’t voted in 1975 deserved a say; but it was the old, who had had a chance to vote then, who gave them victory. I don’t want a second referendum – one was bad enough – but if leavers are so confident they represent the settled will, and not just the fleeting appetite, of the British people, why not hold another? After all, Nigel Farage and Dan Hannan both suggested that if the result had been 52-48 the other way, a re-run might be required. If parliamentary sovereignty means that no parliament can bind its successor, then popular sovereignty has to mean that no referendum can bind the people forever.
Like all fundamentalisms, democratic extremism takes a noble idea, that everyone’s political views should count equally, too far. But if democracy is to endure, voters must inform themselves of the facts, avoid being swayed by prejudice and emotion, and to base judgements on evidence. The romantic invocation of popular sovereignty is no substitute for calm deliberation.
It is not reasonable however for a political elite simply to tell voters they are wrong. The people have every reason to distrust it on the very issue that motivated them to vote to leave: immigration. For more than a decade voters have been told that immigration could be controlled with ease, even though the kind of control they want can only come at enormous economic cost, and by running the risk of stirring up xenophobic feeling across the country. The elite’s greatest error wasn’t, as is often said, to ignore their concerns: but to pretend to address them while doing nothing. Was it asking too much of our political system to try and explain why they were misplaced, and address the real problems that have for the past fifteen years falsely been blamed on immigration?
The remain campaign’s predictions, however disbelieved, are coming true. The pound has had its steepest fall in 30 years. Banks and housebuilders have lost up to a third of their value. $2 trillion was wiped of global stock markets on the day after the vote. Scotland is poised to break away. The mythical “better deal” where greater immigration restrictions could be won without losing access to the single market was immediately rejected by Angela Merkel.
On June 23rd the people voted to take a huge gamble on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations leaves the next Prime Minister trapped. He or she can either sacrifice the interests of leave voters by throwing aside 40 years of business relationships with our largest trading partner, or betray their beliefs by concluding a Norway-style deal that has us formally leave the EU, but maintains economic arrangements more or less unchanged. If they get it wrong, Scotland will secede and UKIP’s rank racism will be almost impossible to stop.