Cit­ing ‘pop­u­lar will’ is no de­fence

In­vok­ing ‘democ­racy’ to avoid an­other ref­er­en­dum is the refuge of char­la­tans

The Observer - - News - Nick Cohen @Nick­Co­hen4 

Bri­tain’sworst politi­cians, which is to say the lead­ers of the Con­ser­va­tive and Labour par­ties, pre­tend that the democ­racy of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum is a dan­ger to democ­racy. Out­siders may be­lieve that the true dan­ger lies in a Brexit that threat­ens the hard­won peace in Ire­land, the union with Scot­land, the liv­ing stan­dards of the poor­est peo­ple and re­gions and Bri­tain’s in­flu­ence in the world, for the sake of a fan­tasy that was in­vented by char­la­tans and is be­ing im­ple­mented by in­com­pe­tents, so un­qual­i­fied in state­craft they can nei­ther agree among them­selves nor be hon­est with the pub­lic about the dis­mal choices ahead.

Not so, ac­cord­ing to the far left and far right that drive the agendas of the ma­jor par­ties – and when in our his­tory have such mi­nor fig­ures dom­i­nated “the ma­jor par­ties”? Af­ter all other arguments against putting the Brexit choices to the elec­torate fail, they turn to the threat of vi­o­lence. “There will be a back­lash the likes of which the po­lit­i­cal classes in this coun­try sim­ply can­not un­der­stand,” warned Nigel Farage. Rather than say that a de­cent left must fight Farage and the thugs he imag­ines swarm­ing on to the streets, John McDon­nell agrees, as he and Jeremy Cor­byn have agreed with Farage on Brexit through­out their ca­reers. Trump’s ally was cor­rect. There can­not be a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum be­cause it would pro­vide “op­por­tu­ni­ties for the far right”.

Once democ­ra­cies boasted they “would never give in to ter­ror­ism”. Now Bri­tain’s lead­ers say they can­not al­low a demo­cratic vote and not only be­cause far-right ter­ror­ists could for­bid it; Theresa May says a ref­er­en­dum on the Brexit set­tle­ment would be “a politi­cians’ vote” that told the “peo­ple they got it wrong the first time and should try again”. For­get if you can the men­da­cious logic that al­lows the prime min­is­ter to pre­tend that al­low­ing the elec­torate rather than par­lia­ment to de­cide is an elite stitch-up and ask your­self: does she or any Tory who hasn’t yet re­signed from her ad­min­is­tra­tion think that if “the peo­ple” learn they have got it wrong, they will blame them­selves?

Con­ser­va­tives were once re­al­ists. They knew “the peo­ple” never blamed them­selves. Now they be­lieve “the peo­ple” will greet eco­nomic hardship and a long, slow na­tional de­cline with a stiff up­per lip and rous­ing cheer.

Tony Blair, who I think it is fair to say knows more than most about how the love of “the peo­ple” can be given and with­drawn, tells me the naivety of Labour and Tory politi­cians as­ton­ishes him. If they can­not take a stand on po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ple, he im­plies, surely they can stand by the time-hon­oured cause of self-preser­va­tion. As he wrote in the Ob­server last week, by the 2022 elec­tion vot­ers will have learned the fal­sity of the Brexit cam­paign’s prom­ises. What ought to be clear now will be blind­ingly ob­vi­ous by then: we will ei­ther have the pow­er­less­ness of fol­low­ing EU rules with­out a say in EU pol­icy or the chaos of a wrench­ing break. But that is not all.

Con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists, who are grow­ing ever more Farag­ist, will not thank Tory MPs if they vote for May’s vas­sal state. Their con­stituents will not thank them if they ally with the Tory right and push us into chaos. Jo John­son put it as bluntly as Blair, when he told his brother Boris and all the Leave cam­paign­ers that “in­flict­ing such se­ri­ous eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal harm on the coun­try will leave an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion of in­com­pe­tence in the minds of the pub­lic”.

Sane Tory MPs would watch their backs and say words to the ef­fect that they had tried to make the ref­er­en­dum re­sult work. Un­for­tu­nately, they had dis­cov­ered that the op­tions fac­ing Bri­tain are so grim only a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum

If politi­cians don’t get the po­lit­i­cal cover of a sec­ond vote, they will be to­tally ex­posed

that in­cluded the ques­tion whether it wouldn’t be bet­ter, af­ter all, to stay could de­cide be­tween them. As Blair puts it: “If politi­cians don’t get the po­lit­i­cal cover of a sec­ond vote, they will be to­tally ex­posed.”

The dilemma fac­ing con­form­ist Labour politi­cians is as stark. When I in­ter­view the cow­ards among Labour’s north­ern MPs, they say they must vote for a Brexit they know will hurt their con­stituents be­cause their an­gry vot­ers de­mand it. If you ask whether they be­lieve a Brexit that pro­duces cuts in in­come and pub­lic ser­vices will lessen their vot­ers’ rage, the tri­bunes of the peo­ple fall silent, In their hearts, they know it will not and can­not.

The self-preser­va­tion prin­ci­ple ap­plies as much on the left as the right. Any am­bi­tious Labour politi­cian must know that a large ma­jor­ity of Labour vot­ers now back Re­main. Our com­ing men and women should also be won­der­ing how much longer Labour mem­bers will chant “Love Cor­byn, hate Brexit”, a slo­gan as de­luded as “Love cig­a­rettes, hate lung can­cer” or “Love beer, hate hang­overs”, be­fore they re­alise the far left has duped them. The next gen­er­a­tion of Labour lead­ers will be Re­main­ers. My ad­vice to un­scrupu­lous Labour hacks de­ter­mined to get on is to go with the flow or be swept away.

I have al­most reached the end with­out mak­ing the es­sen­tial point, that the right’s con­cept of the uni­fied “peo­ple”, who de­nounce the “mu­ti­neers” and “en­e­mies” who be­tray them in a sin­gle voice, is in­her­ently anti-demo­cratic. It was in­vented in the ter­ror­ist phase of the French Revo­lu­tion, a san­guinary mo­ment our lead­ers ought to study with greater care.

As he urged his fel­low rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to dis­pense with the le­gal for­mal­i­ties and sim­ply ex­e­cute Louis XVI, Louis-An­toine de Saint-Just ut­tered an eter­nal po­lit­i­cal truth: “One can­not reign in­no­cently: the in­san­ity of do­ing so is ev­i­dent.” Bri­tish politi­cians be­lieve that they can play the in­no­cent be­cause the ref­er­en­dum has freed them from re­spon­si­bil­ity. All they must do is ex­e­cute the “peo­ple’s will” and “the peo­ple” will thank them. Saint-Just learned about the peo­ple’s gratitude when he went to the guil­lo­tine a year af­ter the king. If Bri­tish politi­cians do not pro­tect them­selves with a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, they will dis­cover in turn that “the peo­ple” be­lieve many things about their lead­ers. But they never think them in­no­cent.

Getty Im­ages

The peo­ple quickly turned against Sain­tJust and other lead­ers of France’s Ter­ror.

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