Brexit crisis confirms you can't make soup out of an idea

John Wight
John Wight has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal.
Brexit crisis confirms you can't make soup out of an idea
Brexit has exposed the rotten foundations of Britain’s political system, corroded by that most pernicious of maladies: rank opportunism.

Khrushchev’s logic and democracy as a zero sum game

With the kind of homespun logic for which he was famous, and which never failed to cut through the fog of theoretical obfuscations spouted by ideologues for whom reality is often a foreign land, Nikita Khrushchev once sagely opined that “you can’t make soup out of an idea.”  Yet if the former Soviet premier dared offered this opinion to proponents of a ‘hard Brexit’ today he would be accused of attempting to betray the will of the British people, of subverting democracy - of being a shill for Brussels.

Regardless, Khrushchev’s words do more to place in perspective the most far reaching political crisis to engulf Westminster since the Second World War than any of the ideologically-heavy but reality-light arguments that have been swirling around Brexit since the British people, by a small majority proportionate to turnout, elected to leave the EU in the referendum that was held on the question back in 2016.  

It reminds us that when democracy lapses into a zero sum game of winner-take-all it becomes a tyranny of the majority, attacking the bonds of social cohesion that are essential to stability – without this kind of stability nothing exists, including democracy. Just ask people in Russia, those who went through the hell of the 1990s, if democracy should be regarded as an end rather than the means to an end. Ask them if you can make soup out of an idea.

Stability threatened and time to take stock

Taking stability – economic, political, social – for granted is a sure fire ticket to perdition. And perdition is precisely where the UK is headed going by the recent announcement that the government has put in place contingency plans in the event of a no deal-Brexit – a so-called hard Brexit involving zero formal trading or economic relationship with the EU – which include the stockpiling of food and medicines, with the army placed on standby to help deliver emergency supplies in the event.

When things reach this point it is time, surely, to take stock.

Yet, instead, those who adhere to a hard Brexit have, if anything, only grown more zealous in their adherence as the clock runs down towards the country’s official departure from the EU in March 2019 – almost as if intent on proving they’re tough enough to go o’er that cliff without a parachute.

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg: these are the commanders of what has taken on the character of a ‘hard Brexit Taliban’, a motley crew of privileged and pampered born-to-rule Tories, who by some perverse mangling of the English language are now posing as champions of the people and guardians of democracy, holding fast to the 2016 EU referendum result like fundamentalists on steroids.

Surveying this motley crew, Albert Camus’ lapidary admonition – “The welfare of the people has always been the alibi of tyrants.” – appears in sharp focus. And lest anyone harbour doubt, if and when the economic shock promised by a hard Brexit materialises, the aforementioned Tory knaves, men of means all, will be fine as they are. They will certainly be more fine than any of the estimated 3 million people whose jobs are dependent on some kind of economic relationship with the EU come March 2019.

Referendums as blunt instruments

Brexit confirms that referendums are blunt instruments when it comes to deciding on matters of irreversible import, and thus should only ever be used in situations of extremis – i.e. Crimea in response to a vicious right-wing coup depriving its people of their legitimate democratic rights – or if not in a situation of extremis, such as Scottish independence or Brexit, they should come with a high threshold set for a majority vote, say of around 70-75%, before the result can be considered legitimate.

The reason such a threshold is crucial is because in the case of both Scottish independence and Brexit, the potential impact of a Yes vote on stability and cohesion demands it. A slim or small majority in favour on either issue cannot possibly satisfy those on the other side of the result, the losing side, that the purposes of democracy have been served. In other words, the decision to fundamentally alter the country and society’s economic, political and constitutional future has to be taken with sufficient support to provide it with a mandate reflective of the scale of that change.

In fact, returning to Brexit, with 62% of voters in Scotland electing to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, along with 56% in Ireland, it is arguable that the result has taken a scalpel to democracy rather than facilitate it.

Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, the man responsible for this political and soon to be economic crisis – who blithely sanctioned the referendum not in the best interests of the country but instead with the objective of silencing the feral anti-Europe backbench ranks within his own party - should be chastised for all eternity and shunned by decent company forevermore. The product of the most expensive and elite education that money can buy, he is a prime example of a man who is too smart for his own good and too stupid for everyone else’s.

Anger pointed in the wrong direction

The anger that fuelled Brexit across post-industrial Britain, on the part of a working class that has suffered grievously under successive Tory governments with their attachment to the verities of austerity, is more than justifiable. However this anger was pointed in the wrong direction, as neither migrants nor Brussels is responsible for their plight.

In fact, and in truth, the plight of the poor and the working class in a country in which child poverty, pensioner poverty, homelessness and destitution is now more redolent of a 19th century dystopia than a mature and civilised society in the 21st, is down to the anti-people economic model, known otherwise as neoliberalism.

It is an economic model which emanated from the US not the EU, and is one to which the British ruling and political class has been more committed to maintaining and upholding than any other ruling and political class in the West, with the arguable inclusion of its US counterpart.

Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie, and the truth of Brexit is that the cure is manifestly worse than the disease. It has elevated charlatanism and demoted integrity, rendering British society more polarised, divided, and stricken with anger and bigotry than at any time since the 1930s. It has wrought confusion and sown enmity, unleashing a carnival of reaction and xenophobia.

Add to the fact that according to the latest poll, undertaken by YouGov, 70% of people in Britain believe that the Brexit negotiations between May’s government and the EU are going badly, and the need for a rethink is clear.

The UK needs a second referendum and it needs one now.

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