Democracy vs Sovereignty? Reflections on the Brexit Debate

27323547984_9ef3a4456a_bIn today’s post Prof. Jonathan Davies argues that the left has no option but to support the triggering of article 50, because the arguments employed against doing so are not credible and cannot presently command any sort of democratic mandate.  The left should instead harness the ‘boomerang effect’ of anti-Trump sentiment in order to build an alternative politics fighting for substantive equality, defending the free movement of labour and opposing the Thatcherite economics of the “single market”.

As Theresa May’s March deadline for triggering Article 50 approaches (this is the EU clause setting Brexit in train), “Remain” forces have been arguing that MPs should vote against it.  They effectively want Parliament to stop the Brexit bandwagon in its tracks. And, when Article 50 is triggered they believe the UK must remain part of the EU “single market”.  I voted “Remain” in the June 2016 referendum. I did so not because I like the EU but because I feared the racist backlash, which followed.  Had I voted “Leave”, I would have had to take my share of the political responsibility for that. Moreover, I share the fears and anxieties among pro-EU friends and colleagues about the rise of racism and nationalism in the UK, the US and parts of Europe. Undoubtedly, these are frightening times. Nevertheless, I believe that Remain perspectives are reckless, if not downright dangerous.  And there are far better political options.

A colleague recently made a memorable comment that attacking institutions on entirely legitimate grounds may have dire consequences, if the assailants cannot control what happens next. Remainers used arguments like this before the Referendum. The one about letting the racist genie out of the bottle convinced me.  Yet those now arguing that Article 50 must not be triggered seem to have forgotten their own rules.

After the Referendum, the pro-EU camp disinterred the constitutional principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty.  This principle holds that no authority can countermand the will of Parliament. The Supreme Court judgment on 24th January 2017 upheld that principle in forcing the government, against its will, to hold a House of Commons vote on whether it should be permitted to trigger Article 50.  MPs in the main English parties are divided, but it appears that with Labour support the government will win the final trigger vote on 8th February.  Jeremy Corbyn’s “three line whip” ordering his MPs to vote for Article 50 has led to a renewed chorus of condemnation for the beleaguered leader, not least from the left remain camp, which wants Labour to follow the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty and strike down the referendum to save Britain from self-inflicted economic and political catastrophe.  This position is justified by the assertion of expert privilege in combination with consequentialist logics. The rationale is that even if striking down the referendum is undemocratic (a moot point) it is justified because it will prevent disaster.  So obsessed with stopping Brexit are some left-leaning academics that they have abandoned Labour and joined the Liberal Democrats.

I believe there is a lot wrong with this thinking.  As a socialist, I have never been much of an enthusiast for either Parliamentary Sovereignty, or referenda – I would prefer to extend and deepen participatory forms of democracy in all walks of life.  The politics of the referendum campaign were dreadful.  The Remain side ran a dismally uninspiring pro-business campaign.  The Leave campaigns were much worse, replete with lies about NHS funding and naked racism. Yet, both Labour and the Tories committed to abide by the result long before the Referendum was held.  And, at present, there seems to be very little public appetite for reversing it. If anything, the contrary is true. Arguably, then, if Parliament refused to trigger Article 50, it would be striking down the referendum in the face not only of the result itself but widespread and enduring public opposition. In these circumstances, the justification for stopping Brexit would seemingly boil down to the claim that “we know better than you”.

There is nothing wrong with expertise.  We need it very badly if we are to flourish as a species.  The racist right has cynically exploited growing public skepticism about expertise, but skepticism itself is far from unreasonable.  For example, the field of economics not only failed to predict the 2008 crisis it refused to acknowledge even the possibility that such an event might happen. It colluded in making the crisis by aligning itself, conspicuously and unapologetically, with neoliberal ideology. Economics departments in leading universities have long since been cleansed of anti-neoliberal (heterodox) economists. Where real scientific expertise depends on openness, plurality, modesty and healthy skepticism, economics relied on institutional power, arrogance, dogma and intellectual closure.  Of course, not all economists are guilty of this kind of behavior – far from it.  Nevertheless, it is untenable to think that invoking economic expertise will work as a justification for striking down the referendum.

At the same time, the UK is going through a growing crisis of democratic representation, a condition Colin Crouch calls “post-democracy”.  The institutions of the state, repeatedly exposed as seedy and corrupt, are held in diminishing public esteem. If, in some ideal world, it could be argued that the British State works for the rights and freedoms of all, the majority might just be convinced to put our collective sovereignty in the hands of an institution like Parliament. But today, our decaying institutions could not possibly carry the people without naked political repression. Presently, there is no justification for demanding that MPs overturn Brexit. On the contrary: it would not be democratic and alternative appeals to sovereignty, backed by claims to expert knowledge, are not politically credible.

For these reasons, it is now the turn of Remain supporters to heed warnings about unleashing forces they cannot possibly control.  Striking down the referendum would be politically catastrophic, not least in triggering a further racist backlash. Three line whip or not, Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Article 50 is correct in my opinion. And, it provides some basis for opposing a reactionary Brexit thereafter.

The other Remain demand is that once Article 50 is triggered, the UK should try to stay within the EU “single market”.  This is generally what people mean by a “Soft Brexit”. The PM has ruled this out, because it would mean having to accept “free movement” of EU citizens.  Mrs May therefore proposes a nationalist and anti-immigration “Hard Brexit”.  I deplore that and seek to defend the principles of “free movement” for people and the right of refugees to sanctuary in the UK.  Is the “single market” really the way to do that?  Some time before the EU was founded, the right wing Mont Pèlerin Society envisioned a single market. These founding fathers of neoliberalism later influenced Margaret Thatcher, who celebrated Britain’s accession to the single market:

“It’s your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer. Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people …

As Mrs Thatcher recognized, the EU single market promotes free market capitalism, competition and corporate profitability. No-one on the left thought it was a good idea in 1988. It certainly isn’t now.  The single market and other pro-market institutions are antithetical to equality, solidarity and democracy. Even the IMF now concedes that “instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion”.  Markets – single or otherwise – polarize. And they crash. To regain our credibility, the left must surely fight for more worthwhile and tangible goals. If so, the real challenge is to both defend free movement and fight for an entirely different economics rooted in socioeconomic equality and solidarity.

The inspirational global response to Donald Trump’s racist edicts shows that this combination of demands is entirely pragmatic. Protests against Trump’s impending visit to the UK could be among the biggest ever held in this country. The Stand up to Racism demonstration on 18th March will also be very big.  Defending migrants and refugees will be among the key demands.  Most importantly, it is possible even now to see how the wave of giant protests across the UK and US can incubate an entirely different politics of hope and solidarity. The boomerang effect of anti-Trump protests in the UK is already plain to see, as Mrs May’s humiliating encounter at the White House exposes the absurdity of racist claims about reclaiming UK sovereignty.  Barricading ourselves behind discredited political and economic institutions is wrong and it will not work.

Jonathan Davies is Professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University.

This entry was posted in Brexit and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.