Arrogant Britain must repent over Brexit decision

Theresa May is wrong over Brexit… she needs to stop lecturing Europe and start listening

I admit it. I am a bad loser. Nothing in the past year has done anything to reconcile me to Britain’s exit from the European Union. It is a mistake of monstrous proportions, and must be reversed.

Brexiteers would call me a ‘remoaner’, as if it is a condition of democracy that, having lost a vote, you turn your back on what you believe. If democracy means anything, it is about people arguing for what they believe and trying to persuade those who oppose them of the rightness of their cause.

If the vote had gone the other way, Brexiteers would by now have regrouped, ready to fight on to leave the Union. Why shouldn’t those who believe last year’s vote was an act of self-harm on a grand scale, do the same?

Britain is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, but it has ceased to operate like one. There is little point in picking over the entrails of David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum. It was an abdication of responsibility of the highest order. But the vote was always ‘advisory’ only.

We elect members of parliament to make the right decisions, not necessarily popular ones. Edmund Burke, the Irish parliamentarian, understood well the dangers of an elective dictatorship. An MP, he asserted, was not a delegate slavishly following the electorate’s whim. Voters “wishes ought to have great weight with him”. But an MP did not surrender his “enlightened conscience”.

In a phrase that should be required reading for all elected to office he said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

With every day that passes, the scale of the damage done to Britain, and the wider world, becomes clearer. We have already seen a reversal of economic fortunes, a worsening of household incomes, and a rise in hate crime. And in Ireland, we know Brexit will mean the reimposition of the border. Soft or hard, it matters little; it will be there. And no amount of fanciful thinking in Dublin or London will wish it away.

At the end of last week, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could be no such thing as a ‘frictionless border’ post-Brexit.

Barnier’s words are worth examining. “I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits. That is not possible.

“I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a customs union to achieve frictionless trade. That is not possible.

“The decision to leave the EU has consequences and I have to explain to citizens, businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel what those consequences mean for them.”

Britain’s arrogance in expecting EU benefits without EU membership is quite simply astonishing.

If the ‘border’ between Britain and the continent is not frictionless, you can be sure that the very real border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will not be either. While the DUP continues to prop up the May government, we must assume that it is content with that scenario too.

While it would be wrong to overplay the risk to the peace process of such a scenario – we must all hope and pray that the commitment to use peaceful means alone to effect constitutional change is absolute – the simple truth is that the return of a border will hamper economic development, and undermine prosperity for unionists and nationalists alike.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister, the Tories got us into this mess, and they need to get us out of it. Within the parliamentary party there remains a majority who understand that Brexit is a disaster, though sadly they lack the will to use what power they have to fight their corner.

The fact that this is a Tory mess does not excuse Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated the voice of the left in British politics. But it is clear that his agenda is a hard Brexit too – whatever the emollient words of Brexit shadow spokesman Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour needs to face up to the fact that exiting the European Union will damage the very people it claims to represent. Until it does, the party will continue to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  • This article appeared in the Irish News on July 11 2017

Rise of the mob marks the end for democracy

 

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Representative democracy is protection against the rule of the mob

It is a sign of desperation when a columnist reaches into history for inspiration. And desperate I am. Like many readers, I voted Remain in that noxious referendum.

In Northern Ireland, we are sensitised to the fact that our membership of the British family palatable only because it is subsumed within something bigger. The European Union was the key to peace in Ireland, and it took a man of vision like John Hume to realise it.

His search for peace was the single biggest act of statesmanship in twentieth century Britain or Ireland that I can think of. The Nobel Peace Prize was insufficient recognition.

Hume is a man who invested all his being in the power of politics to effect change, and he is a parliamentarian to his core. (It is remarkable how many Irishmen can claim to be among the finest performers in the so-called Mother of Parliaments: Burke, Parnell and Hume dominated in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively.)

I don’t intend here to rehearse once more the pros and cons of continued membership of the EU, or to dwell on Northern Ireland’s chances of remaining within it. Arlene Foster is no Nicola Sturgeon.

I am more interested in what the vote and its aftermath, and the collapse of ‘normal’ politics, says about the structures of governance so essential to maintaining peace, security and stability.

The result is further evidence of the terminal decline of the democratic experiment. Winston Churchill, speaking in 1947, made one of his most celebrated observations:

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

There are many weak links in democracy. It is a system that depends on human beings behaving well, and putting the interests of others ahead of their own. It asks a lot of those who participate in it, the theory being that enough of us are wise enough to counter those who are not. That cannot be guaranteed.

The people are sovereign, but experience tells us they cannot be trusted completely. Many a despot has ridden to power on the back of the mob. Hitler used the ballot box to get his grip on power, and then destroyed it.

We know we need to be saved from ourselves, and for this reason the most successful political systems build in checks and balances to protect themselves from populism and its negative effects.

And here we come back to one of those great parliamentarians. Edmund Burke, educated in that crucible of Irish learning Trinity College Dublin, was one of the greatest political thinkers in these islands, and a parliamentarian par excellence.

He championed the cause of American independence, Catholic Emancipation and the shift of power and authority from the monarchy to parliament. But Burke had his concerns about the limitations of the democratic process. He knew that the power of the crowd had to be restrained.

There is within us all the DNA of the lynch mob.

For Burke, the protection came from the development of a representative parliamentary democracy.

He wanted Members of Parliament to understand the needs and desires of their constituents, but to act in their best interests rather than slavishly following their demands.

He set this out clearly when he said: “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

This speech, to the electorate in Bristol in 1774, forms the basis of one-nation conservatism, and it set the tone for parliamentary democracy in Britain and Ireland for the next 250 years.

The referendum was an abdication of the principles Burke set out. As a result (and this is not because I am a sore loser, which I am) politics has let us down by pandering to the mob.

If we continue to crowd-source decision making, the veneer of democracy will barely cover the nakedness of an elective dictatorship, and we will all lose out.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on July 8 2016