With some modest EU reform Britain could stay in Europe while obtaining the deal it wants—all that is needed is flexibility from both sidesby Anatole Kaletsky / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
If there is one fixed point in the hurricane of politics in post-referendum Britain it is the dogma that referendums are sacrosanct. The people, it is claimed, have made an irreversible decision to take Britain out of the European Union—and however dire the consequences of this decision, democracy requires “the people’s will” to be obeyed. This dogma is a travesty of true democracy. Insisting that a referendum vote can never be reversed or even challenged conflicts with history, with law and, most importantly, with democratic principles. In genuine democracy nothing is ever irreversible, since every decision, regardless of the majority that supports it, is always open to debate.
This principle of continuous challenge must be restored—and quickly—if Britain is to avoid an economic and political catastrophe: a deep recession that will cause greatest hardship among the very groups that have been most aroused by the campaign for Brexit, and thereby magnify the public anger and political chaos already unleashed by the referendum.
To avoid the crisis three conditions will be need to be fulfilled. First and foremost, politicians, media commentators and business leaders will have to stop parroting empty slogans such as “Brexit means Brexit” or “the voice people has spoken” and instead begin a serious debate about the appropriate balance between direct and representative democracy in Britain’s constitution. Second, the new government will have to devise a detailed programme on how to preserve the most important benefits of EU membership, while keeping faith with democracy, and then present this to the voters. Third, political leaders from the rest of Europe will have to show greater flexibility and a stronger instinct for the EU’s self-preservation than they have so far.
The first condition to save Britain from self-inflicted disaster will be the creation of a political movement to challenge the assumption that democracy requires unquestioning obedience to a referendum result. The point is not to try to delegitimise the vote, but to refute a dangerous dogma: that once “the people have spoken,” anyone who questions “the people’s will” is guilty of treason.