The prime minister has declared the Brexit vote irreversible. In a democracy, no decision should ever be
The British parliamentary system, inspired by John Locke, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, and many others who believed in a system of checks and balances to guarantee our liberties, has in the past been much admired as a model of liberal democracy, one that has enabled the peaceful evolution that has been an almost unique part of our history. Today it has been superseded.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the champion of the doctrine that ‘the will of the people’ must always prevail, a doctrine much admired by autocrats ever since the days of Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, is now installed in Westminster instead. Speaker after speaker in the House of Commons debates on Article 50 declared that, although he or she voted remain and believed Brexit was not in the national interest, the referendum vote represents the ultimate expression of democracy and therefore ‘the will of the people’ must be obeyed.
The logic of their argument leads to some strange conclusions. Even if it becomes clear that no agreement can be reached at the end of the two years allowed by article 50, or only one which entails the hardest of hard Brexits, making all of us, especially the poor, much poorer, MPs must still vote to leave – because they must abide by the June vote even if it forces them to act like lemmings.
Majorities are not always right. There have been times when the public were later forced to admit they were disastrously wrong. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain came back from Berchtesgaden with a piece of paper declaring “peace in our time”. His message was almost universally acclaimed. Only a few dissented: Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, a young Edward Heath and several leaders of the Labour party. They were denounced as warmongers. Then Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and proved how disastrously wrong the majority had been.
The ‘will of the people’ does not automatically represent or serve the national interest. Before the second world war Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin all commanded overwhelming public support. That hardly made them democrats, or leaders who left their subjects better off. There is no doubt that today Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are among the most popular populists. Are these leaders, who suppress dissent and trample on the rule of law, therefore democrats?
Another dangerous new constitutional doctrine has been introduced by Theresa May and apparently accepted by the Commons. The referendum vote, it appears, is not only to be sacrosanct, but irreversible. May made a concession, welcomed by some Labour leaders as well as most Conservatives, which was in effect a worthless sop. MPs and peers will be allowed a vote on whether to accept a final Brexit deal, achieved against an almost impossible timetable and therefore unlikely to be a very favourable one, or walk away from any agreement – and jump over a cliff. No question of asking her to seek better terms. Much more important, no question of a second referendum to give people a chance to change their minds because circumstances have changed, or because the promises made by Brexit supporters have proved to be no more than pipedreams.
In fact circumstances have changed. Donald Trump was elected president. He has pledged to end the era when the US led the world as the champion of free trade. He threatens a trade war with China. So much for the Brexiteers’ promise of a bonanza of free trade deals once we have left the customs union. Worse still, having vowed to abandon the European Union, May is driven into the arms of someone whose election (like the Brexit vote) was enthusiastically welcomed by every protectionist and nationalist in Europe, who seeks to destabilise the European Union itself, who has questioned the importance of Nato and who seeks a new deal with Putin as a strong man whom he admires as someone he can do business with. As for his values as an ally of the democratic West, these seem to include allowing the possible use of state torture to counter terrorism, because “torture works”.
Public opinion has not yet shifted perceptibly since June. If it does not change before the end of next year, it is doubtful if Brexit can still be avoided. But if the forecasts of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and other independent economists prove right and living standards start to decline, or if the prospect of swapping Trump’s America for the EU as our main partner repels a majority of the public, the June verdict must be open to review. And a review of a referendum vote must obviously be through a new referendum. Dictatorships do not allow people to change their minds. In a democracy, no decision should ever be irreversible.
Dick Taverne is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords