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Tue 21 September 2021

Boris Johnson’s ‘no deal’ posturing is a reminder of how Brexit has violated British democracy, argues Sam Bright

An inherent weakness of winner-takes-all democracies, such as the UK’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, is the tyranny of the majority.

A phrase coined by the 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill, it refers to the acquisition of power by majority groups through democratic means, which is then used to punish and oppress minorities.

While the erosion of political civility and rise of race-based populism has certainly led to the targeting and demonisation of minority groups, Mills perhaps didn’t foresee the gerrymandering and electoral splintering that has occurred in modern politics – helping angry groups without majority support to gain a stranglehold.

There is a conservative bias in the American ‘electoral college’ system, for example, stemming from the concentration of Democrats in certain states and urban areas with less political representation. Infamously, Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election despite gaining three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, while the Republican Party is able to effectively occupy the Senate, owing to the equal representation granted to small, conservative states such as Idaho and large, liberal ones like California.

The UK, meanwhile, has experienced its own form of minority rule through the ceaseless Brexit saga. It is repeatedly pointed out by advocates of the project that 52% of people voted for Brexit in 2016. Indeed, it is a figure burned into our political subconscious. Yet, when turnout is taken into account, only 37.4% of eligible voters actually gave their explicit consent to the idea.

And it’s not as though support for Brexit has burgeoned in the succeeding years, as voters have become more enlightened about the issue. As recently as mid-November, a YouGov poll found that a record number of people believe the Brexit result to be a mistake – 51% to 38%, with 11% unsure.

That’s why, the story goes, an elderly gentleman approached David Cameron – the Prime Minister who called the referendum – after the result and said: “Even my golf club requires a super majority to change its rules.” Given Brexit and its impacts will outlast all those who voted for it, a 66% majority surely would have been a prudent level of consent.

Alas, logic has never prevailed in the Brexit debate. This one-off vote – premised on misinformation and xenophobia, supported by a minority of the country – has marshalled British politics for the past five years, and will likely do so for the next 50. The public was of course given the opportunity to change course at the 2019 General Election and 47.6% of those who voted cast their ballots for parties that either tacitly or explicitly supported a second referendum. Despite this, due to the irrational vagaries of the electoral system, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won an 80-seat majority.

The democratic injustice of this five-year trauma has been particularly evident in recent weeks. Entering the final stretch of trade talks with the EU, British negotiators led by the Prime Minister have been engaged in little more than political haggling. It is currently a distinct possibility that, in order to satisfy the Brexit ultras in his party, Johnson will pull Britain over a ‘no-deal’ precipice under the guise of protecting the fishing industry – which contributes a tiny fraction to the UK’s GDP.

While the anti-Brexit protests have subsided since Johnson’s election victory and the country’s formal departure from the EU at the end of January, resentment towards the project has not simply dissipated. It is flagrantly, transparently idiotic to wrench the country away from its economic locus at a time when jobs are disappearing and deprivation is soaring. The case against Brexit is getting stronger over time, not weaker.


The End of Consequences

Masking this seething anger, however, is an overwhelming sense of futility – a psychological desperation about the political system and the events of recent years.

The country was duped by self-serving charlatans who used Brexit as a turbine to propel their political careers. The negotiations have been protracted, painful, and distracting – as was predicted. The economy and our currency has been hit – as was predicted. Yet, Britain trudges on in its hypnosis, engrossed by the false edifice of national supremacy.

With this in mind, it is unclear whether those of us who opposed Brexit will ever receive a moment of validation; a national awakening to the consequences of Brexit and a reckoning for those who pursued it with such vigour.

We are submerged in an era of political impunity, where actions do not have direct consequences. Take the Coronavirus pandemic: institutionalised Government incompetence has led to one of the highest death tolls and the worst economic performance in Europe, yet the governing Conservative Party remains stubbornly ahead in the polls.

Meanwhile, one of the chief stewards of the dual COVID-Brexit cluster-calamity, Dominic Cummings, was awarded a 40% pay rise this year, according to official records. His personal impunity was epitomised by a trip to Barnard Castle, breaching lockdown rules, that went entirely unpunished by Johnson.

This impunity is buttressed by the way in which people consume and interpret information in the technology age. The news industry has simultaneously expanded and fragmented since the inception of social media. We all have the ability, more than at any point in history, to lean on news sources that confirm our existing political biases. This has fuelled hyper-partisanship, with a torrent of micro-targeted spin and misinformation used to dissuade people from reconsidering their political decisions.

This makes it even more imperative that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party maintains a strong, circumspect approach towards Brexit. Not only will it benefit the party electorally – hoovering up the support of Brexit critics – it will help to salvage the UK’s political sanity.

As Brexit Britain’s mediocrity takes root, it is the duty of Labour – as the main party of opposition – to call-out the betrayal of Brexiters. Any other policy would provoke a political backlash of epic proportions.

Since 2016, remain voters have been standing at the window, despairing yet unable to intervene while Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage turn over tables, smash the family heirlooms and install 74 portaloos in the living room.

It would be a big mistake to assume that we will forget this act of political vandalism, for this is our house too.


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