If, during the 2016 referendum campaign, you had told voters that MPs would be scrambling to stop the prime minister shutting down the legislature in order to force through food shortages, mass job losses and a crash in the pound, someone might have needed to change the slogan on the side of that bus. What is happening right now in Britain goes beyond any previously conceivable limits of responsible or accountable governance. Viewed against the country which seemed to exist just a few years ago, it is quite literally unbelievable.
It’s not just that Brexit is a case of “I told you so”: the harm to our national political fabric has been more catastrophic than even the most pessimistic Remainer could have contemplated.
Britain is now heading into immediate, unabated crisis, but the consequences could last for years or even decades. Even the most conservative estimates suggest damage to our economy in all circumstances if we leave, contrary to everything campaigners promised. The neutral Office for Budget Responsibility this week forecast a significant recession in the event of no-deal. But the economic damage will almost certainly take less time to repair than the damage to our politics and society. What was billed as a way for people to take back control of democracy has become a systematic attack on every institution which underpins it.
First the Brexiters came for political opponents. Any prominent Remainer who dared question the legitimacy of the referendum or, heaven forbid, suggested a new one in the light of changed circumstances, was branded a traitor, an enemy of democracy, an elitist, a Remoaner, someone who wanted to subvert the will of the people, someone who knew best, someone who hated Britain. It was devastatingly effective. Brexit’s leaders rapidly and comprehensively refigured democratic opposition as opposition to democracy. All potential opponents, particularly in parliament itself, were cowed into affirming “respect for the result.” It became a standard vow of allegiance to a movement they knew to be disastrous, and they had little choice but to make it. In some cases the alternative quite literally threatened to be physical violence.
Then the Brexiters moved on to the media. Journalists or newspapers who attempted to speak for the 48 per cent of voters who had not endorsed the project were denounced for their lack of enthusiasm. The suggestion that journalistic rigour might trump settled belief somehow became suspicious. In the new approved discourse, lying about one’s country was a greater act of love than talking freely about it.
It wasn’t just that telling the truth became radical. Even asking questions was deemed objectionable. Anyone who pointed out the risks, unknown consequences or indeed the verifiable facts of Brexit was accused of “talking Britain down.” Andrea Leadsom on one occasion called for broadcasters to be more “patriotic.”
After the Daily Mail branded High Court judges “enemies of the people” for daring to give parliament (the people’s representatives) the right to trigger Brexit, attention soon enough turned to the civil service. The wiser Brexiters quickly realised that they would have to line up a scapegoat for the inevitable moment their project collapsed, and civil servants were the easiest target. They could not answer back, but were at the same time doomed to fail, because the purpose of Brexit was to satisfy romantic myth and the purpose of Whitehall is to execute political reality.
A key early victim was the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, Ivan Rogers, who resigned after ministers refused to listen to his advice. Then came the prime minister’s negotiator, Olly Robbins, whose failure to deliver a miracle was deemed a sign of pro-Remain bias. Finally and most shamefully came the UK’s ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, who resigned after someone leaked his frank diplomatic cables. Darroch became a pawn in a much larger campaign, which ultimately demands the replacement of politically neutral civil servants with sycophantic pro-Brexit courtiers. Those who fail to demonstrate sufficient personal passion for the cause must simply be purged.
The Brexiters’ most enduring and destructive assault has been on the legislature. In this lies the greatest irony. The process advertised to “take back control” for parliament has for three years fronted a relentless attempt to take it away. As the mission creep of Brexit itself has advanced (guaranteed access to the single market has now given way to no deal at all) so has the brazenness of the campaign against parliamentary democracy. It was not enough for the executive to attempt to deny MPs a meaningful say. Now it threatens to force through a policy unhindered by opposition. To call this a democratic outrage is to understate the case. It would be a travesty unseen since the English Civil War. The prime minister derives their legitimacy and authority from the House of Commons alone. It is the absolute source of national sovereignty. If you shut down parliament, you shut down democracy. This week MPs voted against prorogation, but many further battles await in the autumn—none of them previously imaginable.
This assault on democratic institutions and norms is not taking place in isolation. It is embedded in a far wider authoritarian movement which aims to empower the right-wing fringes of society and political opinion. We saw it only too clearly this week in Donald Trump’s racist declaration that four ethnic-minority congresswomen should “go back… [to the] places from which they came,” and at his subsequent rally, the chants of “send her back.” The circumstances may be new, but the broader ambition echoes down the ages and across political cultures. It is to attack freedom, pluralism and diversity in the pursuit of power.
What we can see now in Britain is a kind of national derangement. It has become clear that Brexit was never about leaving the EU. Indeed, that is its least important element. Brexit is, or became, a nationalist identitarian culture war. As a project it purports to be open and global but in truth parades dogmatic rigidity and smallness. It requires unquestioned devotion to a creed from people trapped into political submission. This dogma purges dissent, erases opposition and expels non-believers. Because the truth must not be spoken, the institutions which depend on it must be silenced.
It is time to call this project for what it is. Brexit’s leaders are seeking to break every guarantor of British democracy, one by one. Each month brings unprecedented outrage. If we don’t end this soon, it may become too late to end it at all.