Democracy and Brexit

If democracy is taken to mean that the interests of all the people should be protected by the elected government, then it is hardly democratic for a simple majority of voters to determine a matter of such crucial importance as Brexit

There are striking similarities with what is happening in British politics now, and the events of 1933 in Germany
There are striking similarities with what is happening in British politics now, and the events of 1933 in Germany

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler, after winning about 33% of the votes in the General Election, deemed to have been democratic despite the accompanying terror campaign of the Hitler bullies, was appointed Chancellor of Germany by a senile President von Hindenburg. Thus, technically, Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship was legitimate… and we all know where that led to.

There are striking similarities with what is happening in British politics now, and the events of 1933 in Germany. The Brexit Referendum was legitimately approved by Parliament, but its terms of reference were seriously flawed. If democracy is taken to mean that the interests of all the people should be protected by the elected government, then it is hardly democratic for a simple majority of voters to determine a matter of such crucial importance as Brexit, affecting not only those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain, but also those who did not vote.

Corporate decisions about important changes usually require a 75% majority, or at least two thirds. That the Brexit Referendum called for a simple majority was apparently not intentionally wrong, but rather a foolish gamble, expecting and relying on a simple majority vote to remain. There would then have been no change, simply a vote for the status quo. But the vote to leave is one calling for momentous changes in the politics, economics, and social life of the British nation, and the very survival of the Union. 

The similarities with the rise of Hitler are striking: the false propaganda and outright lies of the Brexiteers; the incitement to racial intolerance; the involvement of rabble-rousers of the ilk of Nigel Farage; the open xenophobia; the disparagement of “experts”, including the highly respected Governor of the Bank of England, and the majority of the leaders of commerce, industry, and finance. Between the two world wars it was the discontent and suffering of the populations of mainland Europe, including not only Germany and Austria, but notably France and Italy as well. The resulting populism, as it is now called, led to two important ideologies: Communism and Fascism – diametrically opposed yet paradoxically similar, both leading to dictatorships. Both ideologies found support among the deprived, the poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, the out-of-work, and the angry.

This brings to mind another similarity: the crash of 1929 which led to the Great Depression, and the crash of 2008, the consequences of which are still with us. It took a second world war to pull out of the Great Depression. Let us hope it will not take a third to recover from 2008.

The situation in Britain since the ruling of the High Court that Parliament must have the last say, has deteriorated further. According to the unique and glorious unwritten Constitution, Parliament is supreme. Her Majesty’s government cannot go against the Constitution: It must therefore submit to Parliament. The parliamentary process would ensure that all aspects of Brexit would be examined as the Bill goes through the Commons and the Lords. This will help to ensure that the remainers and the ‘regrexiteers’ will not be “an oppressed minority”. It will take more time, but will avoid a “fools rush in” situation, which would ultimately damage the United Kingdom. Parliament made a mistake, and Parliament can put it right.

Yet the unelected Prime Minister argues that she has been authorised by the referendum to implement Brexit without the consent of Parliament. She has said the judges were “insulting the intelligence of the British people”. Her Lord Chancellor, “who has the Constitutional responsibility for upholding the independence of the judiciary, pointedly failed to defend the judges”, according to The Times. The Times also reported that Dominic Grieve, QC, a former Attorney General, described the attacks on the judges as “chilling and outrageous… there is something smacking of the fascist state about them.” The Supreme Court will now have its final say.

I have been asked why I care so much about the political situation in the United Kingdom. After I returned to Malta in the late 1980s, I started an art gallery and a publishing business. I also started to write. Over the next 10 years I made a careful study of the rise of Fascism in Europe between the two World Wars. My researches culminated in a historical novel Lost Generations; it is a horrifying tale of Fascism and its consequences. I only explain this personal background information as a sort of apologia for my ‘ranting’, as some correspondents put it, on this subject.

At that time, Britain was not immune to the allure of the Brownshirts and the Blackshirts and many on the right in all classes were attracted to the blandishments of Hitler and Mussolini. Sir Oswald Mosley, an impressive rabble-rouser with a following of sorts, had to be locked up for the duration of the War together with his wife. In the 1930s the British people were on the whole principled and high-minded; the Crown, the Church, and Parliament were held in high esteem. Thus the vast majority rejected the lies and propaganda of the budding dictators. At great cost Fascism was defeated, but Britain lost many of her best, and was more or less bankrupted in the process.

What is happening today is alarmingly similar to the situation in the 1920s and 30s, as we enter a post-truth era here in Europe and also across the Atlantic. The Modern Life column in the November issue of my favourite magazine The Oldie, notes: “In the past it was assumed that politicians would at least try to maintain a semblance of honesty. Now, though, we have entered the age of post-truth politics in which lying has become a deliberate political strategy.” The Leave campaign made “assertions of fact that were knowingly misleading”, according to a group of experts in electoral law, led by Professor Bob Watt of the University of Buckingham.  

One of the biggest lies bandied about during the referendum campaign was that savings resulting from Brexit would release £350m a week which could go to the NHS. Immigration became a focal point of the referendum campaign as a result of the misleading propaganda of the Brexiteers. 

Vote Leave claimed that the UK population could increase by 5.23m by 2030. This was based on the assumption that Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia would join the EU by 2020, giving their citizens the automatic right to come and live in the UK. They particularly focused on the prospect of Turkey joining the EU, a remote prospect and an unlikely one at that. The other four countries mentioned are not even a remote prospect. Putting immigration front and centre was a calculated move but many of the assertions were deliberate lies.

Manfred Weber, one of Germany’s most senior politicians, understandably exploded recently about Boris Johnson in connection with Turkey: “It is unbelievable, frankly speaking. It is a provocation... In the Brexit campaign, he had leaflets showing Turkey, Syria and Iraq as possible members of the EU, making people afraid of the possible new migration waves… Then a few weeks afterwards he is travelling to [President] Erdogan and offering support for becoming a member of the EU. It is a purely arrogant provocation from Johnson when he is telling us what we have to do. I cannot respect any more what he is doing.”

The phoney referendum, as I see it, came as a huge disappointment to me and many others. Kenneth Clarke wrote in his recently published memoirs that David Cameron did not discuss “his startling and catastrophic decision to call a referendum” in cabinet. He recalls he was shocked in January 2013 to read that David Cameron had, without warning so far as he as a member of the cabinet was concerned, announced that he intended to hold a referendum by 2017. What is even more astonishing is that Parliament decreed that the decision of the electorate would pass by a simple majority. It is inconceivable in corporate and government affairs that a simple majority should be sufficient to implement a change of something as important as Brexit – 75% or at least two thirds is usually required.

The turnout for the referendum was 72.2% of the electorate, so the 52.9% majority represented 42.74% of those entitled to vote. What is also highly important is that two of the four nations comprising the United Kingdom voted to remain. According to Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, “it is also difficult to determine by osmosis what was in the minds of the 52 per cent of people who voted to leave… Some of the 52 per cent voted because they wanted to leave Europe, or they didn’t like the government, or they didn’t like immigration, or they didn’t like the fact that there was a Sunday in the week, and so it is very difficult to know precisely where the balance of real opinion lies.”

To my mind it would be blatantly unfair that a minority of the electorate should make a momentous decision to change the life of the whole nation, while also setting aside the wishes of Scotland and Ireland. It is also deeply worrying that the Brexiteers, under the leadership of a previously respected politician, have decided to oppose the decision of the High Court that Parliament should have the final decision.

John Major spoke from the heart recently: “I hear the argument that the 48 per cent of people who voted to stay should have no say in what happens,” he said. “I find that very difficult to accept. The tyranny of the majority has never applied in a democracy and it should not apply in this particular democracy.” He also said that Parliament, not the government, must make the final decision on any new deal with the EU. There was a “perfectly credible case” for a second referendum, he added.

He also criticised the “ugly” tone of the Leave campaign. “Many immigrants are made to feel unwelcome by the tone and tenor of our referendum campaign. Some of it, I thought, was shameful,” he said. “As well as the legitimate concern about the sheer numbers of migrants there lies, I am sad to say, a real flavour of bigotry. We need to understand and say publicly that most immigration is a boost to our national wellbeing and not a drain on it.”

Tony Blair has also re-entered the debate claiming that those who questioned the wisdom of leaving the EU were being accused of “treason”. “When I say, ‘Let’s just keep our options open’ it’s condemned as treason,” he told the New Statesman. “It [Brexit] can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up… Either you get maximum access to the single market – in which case you’ll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European Court’s jurisdiction. People may then say, ‘Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?... Alternatively you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great because beyond doubt you’ll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring.”

A telling comment from Nick Clegg, in his new book Politics: “Never in modern history has a country’s interests been so gravely betrayed by the arrogance and casual incompetence of its leaders.”