An­other Brexit ref­er­en­dum is a ter­ri­ble idea

The Borneo Post - - THOUGHTS & OPINIONS - By John Lloyd

IN the ‘care­ful what you wish for’ stakes, few is­sues rank higher than the plan for a se­cond ref­er­en­dum by those in the UK hop­ing for a re­ver­sal of the coun­try’s June 2016 vote to leave the Euro­pean Union (the ‘Re­main­ers.’) If se­cured, the out­come could be a fast track to a phe­nom­e­non the UK has so far avoided – the cre­ation of a large, an­gry pop­ulist party, prob­a­bly of the right and per­haps also of the left.

That would be very bad news for the UK, for its pol­i­tics, for Europe, and for the cause of democ­racy gen­er­ally. It would be seen, with some jus­tice, as ‘they’ crush­ing the demo­cratic vote of ‘we the peo­ple.’

The se­cond ref­er­en­dum plan is jus­ti­fied by ar­gu­ing that the Bri­tish peo­ple de­serve to have a choice be­tween the gov­ern­ment’s Brexit pro­posal, agreed by Theresa May’s cab­i­net with dif­fi­culty last month and to be voted on by par­lia­ment on Dec 11, and that of scrap­ping Brexit al­to­gether. The elec­torate, the Re­main­ers ar­gue, will make an in­formed choice rather than a mere ex­pres­sion of frus­tra­tion with the EU, as in 2016.

But of course, the or­gan­is­ers hope for a re­ver­sal of Brexit. They be­lieve the elec­torate is fright­ened by the prospect of slower growth, or even an eco­nomic shock from crash­ing out with­out a plan – both warn­ings put out last week by Bank of Eng­land Gov­er­nor Mark Car­ney, sup­ported by an of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment anal­y­sis.

No coun­try is an is­land, not even one that is, like Bri­tain. The surge of of­ten vi­o­lent mil­i­tancy in France, left and right united against the cen­trist and once pop­u­lar Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron and his République en Marche party, is the most vivid and fright­en­ing ex­am­ple of the con­fronta­tion be­tween ‘us’ and ‘them.’ But the dis­af­fec­tion is deep and wide in the rest of Europe, and – as Yves Leterme, for­mer prime min­is­ter of Bel­gium warned in June, the pop­ulists are united by ‘their re­fusal to play by the rules of con­ven­tional pol­i­tics.’

In France, what be­gan as a more or less con­ven­tional protest, mainly in the prov­inces, against a fuel price rise has now trans­formed it­self into some­thing like a rev­o­lu­tion. The prom­ise by the French Prime Min­is­ter Édouard Philippe on Tues­day to sus­pend the fuel tax in­creases for six months was fol­lowed by more ri­ot­ing. On Wed­nes­day evening, the gov­ern­ment sur­ren­dered com­pletely, tak­ing the rises out of the 2019 bud­get, with no threat of their re­newal. This week­end will see how well that works.

This, from an ad­min­is­tra­tion which had ap­peared the most res­o­lute and con­fi­dent in Europe, with a pres­i­dent who only two weeks ago made a virtue of not fol­low­ing his pre­de­ces­sors in his of­fice in back­ing down in face of protests, is a ter­ri­ble warn­ing to Euro­pean gov­ern­ments – and per­haps more widely in the demo­cratic world. France seems to de­mon­strate that the demo­cratic choice of an ad­min­is­tra­tion one year is vul­ner­a­ble to a wave of mil­i­tant anger the next. If that confirms it­self as a trend, the knell for democ­racy surely tolls.

How likely is such a trend? There’s no steady po­lit­i­cal weath­er­vane point­ing in only one di­rec­tion. In Ger­many, where the fears of a far-right surge are most im­preg­nated with 20th cen­tury hor­rors, the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many hit a high of 17 per cent in a late sum­mer poll, only to fall away to 12 per cent in re­gional elec­tions in Bavaria and Hesse, where the left­ist Green Party surged.

Italy’s na­tional pop­ulist coali­tion gov­ern­ment re­mains pop­u­lar, and the deputy Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Salvini, Italy’s most prom­i­nent politi­cian and an out­spo­ken op­po­nent of im­mi­gra­tion, pro­poses lib­er­al­is­ing gun own­er­ship laws, court­ing fears of the rise of a gun lobby as pow­er­ful as that in the United States. Italy’s gov­ern­ment is locked in a strug­gle with the EU over a bud­get, agreed be­tween Brus­sels and the pre­vi­ous cen­ter-left ad­min­is­tra­tion, which the pop­ulist coali­tion re­fuses to ob­serve. Nei­ther side can af­ford to back down, but com­pro­mises may save tem­po­rary face.

In Spain, seen as im­mune to right-wing pop­ulism, a new force grows. Vox, a far-right party came from nowhere to win 12 seats in the re­gional par­lia­ment of An­dalu­sia this month, and may en­ter gov­ern­ment there with a man­i­festo that was much more about na­tional is­sues such as con­trol of im­mi­gra­tion, more power to a cen­tralised na­tional gov­ern­ment, pro­mo­tion of in­creased aware­ness of Spain’s con­tri­bu­tion to civil­i­sa­tion and more. That An­dalu­sia vot­ers should re­spond with en­thu­si­asm to a party which wants power to flow back from the re­gions to the cen­ter shows a large dis­af­fec­tion with Spain’s sys­tem of de­volved rule – a sys­tem which has pro­duced a con­tin­u­ing stand­off be­tween sep­a­ratists in Cat­alo­nia and the gov­ern­ment in Madrid. The quar­rel, says the Cata­lan com­men­ta­tor Juan José López Burniol, ‘has a mas­sive abil­ity to desta­bilise the whole of Spain.’

Burniol’s com­ment ap­plies to all of Europe. The na­tional pop­ulists have not won – though they pin large hopes on a muchi ncreased vote, even a ma­jor­ity, in the Euro­pean elec­tions in May 2019 – but they are ex­tremely desta­bil­is­ing. Swe­den is strug­gling to form a gov­ern­ment be­cause the far-right Swedish Democrats hold the bal­ance of power, and no main­stream party will co­a­lesce with them. In Aus­tria, the rad­i­cal right party, FPÖ, is the ju­nior part­ner in a right-wing coali­tion which stresses re­stric­tions on im­mi­gra­tion – and out­rages lib­er­als by at­tacks on the state broad­caster, al­leged ef­forts to sup­press in­ves­ti­ga­tions into racist be­hav­ior by far-right sup­port­ers and – a par­tic­u­larly bit­ter is­sue – the gov­ern­ment’s can­celling of a law against smok­ing in restau­rants. No coun­try can avoid a reck­on­ing with a large group of cit­i­zens who hate what main­stream par­ties have done.

As in the United States, the op­po­si­tion of the pop­ulists, in and out of gov­ern­ment, to lib­eral poli­cies of ev­ery kind – on im­mi­gra­tion, ecol­ogy, gen­der, me­dia, fam­ily and wel­fare – gen­er­ates strong, con­sis­tent sup­port. That sup­port is fu­eled by a feel­ing, both large and deep, that the lib­er­als and cen­trists have mo­nop­o­lised power for decades – and have failed the peo­ple. And, as Mark Lilla writes in the New York Re­view of Books, “ideas are be­ing de­vel­oped [on the Euro­pean right], and transna­tional net­works for dis­sem­i­nat­ing them are be­ing es­tab­lished.” Pop­ulism is more than thug­gery.

Bri­tish lib­er­als may hope the House of Com­mons’ likely fail­ure to pass the gov­ern­ment’s Brexit pro­pos­als will se­cure a se­cond ref­er­en­dum to re­verse the vote to leave. But it would gen­er­ate class war. The tin­der is dry, wait­ing a lighted match.

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters In­sti­tute for the Study of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. The opin­ions ex­pressed here are his own.)

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