And Tony Blair is right to argue as muchby / February 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
In a speech today, Tony Blair urged Britain to think again about Brexit. He encouraged pro-EU Britons to “rise up” to express their support for the European Union and to fight for the country’s membership.
No sooner had he opened his mouth than a chorus of pro-Brexit commentators demanded that he shut it again. Boris Johnson said that by suggesting that Britain should think again, Blair was “insulting British voters.” He continued: “I urge the British people to rise up and turn off the TV next time Tony Blair comes on with his condescending campaign.”
But such foaming objections to Blair’s speech, and the claim that it was somehow against the wishes of the electorate and therefore anti-democratic, is nonsense. The idea that Brexit now cannot be criticised or objected to ignores an essential characteristic of the open democratic society, which can be summed up in one word—flux.
It is in the nature of a democracy to be in a constant state of change. The economy is constantly shifting. People’s opinions are constantly on the move. The make-up of the population is always morphing. Society is becoming older, more diverse. Companies are created while others close. Governments stand and fall. Tax receipts, car sales, high street footfall, smoking habits, social values—all are constantly changing.
A society where no such change occurs would be a dark one indeed. At the very far end of the spectrum is North Korea, a society that stands out for its complete resistance to change. People may not advance themselves, dress as they choose, start a business or vote for the government of their choice. The economy is fixed, as is the political leadership. There, the future is set.
The essence of the national freedom that we enjoy in Britain resides in our complete rejection of that sense of fixity, and a strong belief that the future is not politically determined. Britain has the ability to change direction at any given time. It is worth remembering that the Brexit vote itself was an example of precisely such an about turn.
Only 13 months before the June 2016 referendum vote, the British electorate had put into office a government led by David Cameron, a member of the now-derided “metropolitan liberal elite.” Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership and had repeatedly indicated to the electorate that he was in favour of Britain staying in the EU. As such, his General Election victory was an endorsement of his metropolitan, liberal determination that Britain should stay in Europe. It was central plank of his political identity. The electorate endorsed it.
Just over a year later came the referendum, in which Britain showed that it had apparently changed its mind. It was not in favour of Cameron’s liberal world view. It wanted something else. The politics of the country had changed.
Blair is encouraging nothing more than another demonstration of precisely this kind of flexibility. He encourages Britain to think again. It is worth noting that, in the referendum, 16.1m people expressed an opinion in line with Blair’s own. He has popular grounds for promoting such a view. (It is ironic that, in promoting the idea that Britain’s political judgements are inflexible, pro-Brexit politicians like Johnson are disallowing precisely the sort of change that brought them the referendum outcome that they craved.)
Whether one thinks that Britain is better off in or out of the EU is immaterial. Britain must retain the political flexibility that is embedded in its character, or else it will lose a critical part of its core identity. Without it, we would become a very different, more sinister country, in which it would be politically acceptable to rule certain arguments off limits: an approach that is in the process of tearing apart Donald Trump’s administration. It is not an approach that Britain should emulate.
Blair’s intervention is a simple re-statement of an accepted political axiom—that the future is not set. In a democracy, it never can be. He has been wrong in the past. But on this, he is absolutely correct.