There is a tendency to frame everything as Britain versus Europe. But the most incendiary effect of reversal would be domesticby / July 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Europe has form on referendums it doesn’t like—Denmark was told to go away and have another think about Maastricht, as was Ireland on both Nice and Lisbon. In 2015, Greece was told that its plebiscite against austerity actually counted for less than nothing—it was served up with even stiffer financial terms than before. No wonder there’s a disconnect between Europe’s governing and its governed.
But Brexit is different. It’s challenging the whole idea of Europe—and in one of the Union’s largest members. The nearest to a past parallel would be France’s vote against the putative EU constitution in 2005, which succeeded in killing off that project’s grandeur (even if its detail was mostly folded into the Lisbon Treaty).
Overturning the Brexit vote would be something new and disturbing. It could exacerbate a yawning democratic deficit, and threaten the whole idea of Europe as a community of consent, as opposed to a club countries have to stay in.
In a hypothetical referendum re-run, the result could be flipped with very few minds being changed: demographics, and higher turn-out among Remain-supporting groups could do the work. The political effect of remaining “after all” would then be to deepen the schism that the original vote had laid bare: highly educated and metropolitan Britain might be delighted, but those with more modest schooling in small-town England would think that their votes didn’t count.
The first group aligns with the EU, the second doesn’t, and they disagree on much else too: parliamentary versus popular sovereignty, and how they see Britain’s place in the world. With Brexit negotiations in the headlines, there is a tendency to frame everything as Britain versus Europe, but the most incendiary effect of reversal would be to turn this country against itself, and tear apart what remains of a national consensus about how it should be run.
This is a real danger even in the (more likely) situation of a Brexit In Name Only, in which free movement continues: Leave voters would discover that “taking back control” had proved an illusion.
Ukip 2.0, or something worse might flare up, and our major parties, already fragile coalitions, could begin to crack. Show enough disdain to the verdicts of democracy, and you’ll end breaking the vehicles of democracy too.