The Brexit Party: Vital Stop-Gap, But No Solution
13 May 2019
All democrats should support The Brexit Party in the European Parliament elections. But that does not mean it is the answer to the deep problems of British politics.
The Brexit Party is standing in the European Parliament elections on a single-issue platform: the implementation of Brexit. Another way of putting this is that the single policy that The Brexit Party is defending at these elections is that Britain should remain a democracy. This is both a key strength of The Brexit Party in the short run and an indication of the critical weakness of democratic politics in Britain in the longer view. Let’s look at the short run first and then the deeper problem.
Parliament enacted a referendum on EU membership. It put this major constitutional question to a direct vote of the electorate. More than 85 percent of MPs then promised in the 2017 general election to implement the referendum result. The attempt by the House of Commons to repudiate its promise represents a mortal threat to the survival of democracy in Britain. If the major parties are successful in killing off Brexit, or in engineering an Erdogan-style second referendum before implementing the result of the first, millions of voters would be led to the conclusion that democracy is a worthless sham. The simple fact of contemporary British politics is that this disastrous outcome cannot be avoided except by a massive vote for The Brexit Party at the European elections.
Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have any credibility with respect to implementing Brexit. It is the machinations of these two parties that have undermined the prospects for Brexit over the past three years. The Labour Party’s candidates at these elections are almost entirely militant Remainers and Revokers. The Liberal Democrats, Green Party and SNP are all explicitly committed to parliament repudiating its promises. UKIP really does fit the description of a far right party. Nobody on the left has established an alternative Brexit party.
Anything other than a huge vote for The Brexit Party will be taken by a Remain-dominated parliament as a green light for their plans to nullify the referendum and renege on their commitments. It is worth keeping in mind just how disastrous this course of action is likely to be. Parliament will have to rule in defiance of its sole source of real authority: the electorate to whom it has lied (see Analysis #20 - Parliament at the Cliff-Edge: Why a Second Referendum Could Destroy its Authority).
When it is eventually forced into an election, the Labour Party will be relying on a reduced turnout hurting the Tories more than it hurts them in order to get a weak government elected. This weak government will have to manage a population containing a very large section that will be bitterly resentful at its effective disenfranchisement. A growth in European-style right-wing populism is one likely outcome. Another is a significant expansion of police repression of political speech and possibly organisation, of a sort already agreed between police chiefs and parliamentarians, as a weak political class tries to keep control (see Analysis #24 - The Myth of “Weimar Britain”: Why Soubryism, not Fascism, is the Future).
Probably the worst aspect of this trajectory is that the state authoritarianism to come will cement the alienation between the political left and the majority of the population because it will be woke authoritarianism. The political elite will rely heavily on the liberal left’s McCarthyite campaign to slander anyone who argues for Brexit as “far-right”. This campaign is already well advanced (and The Brexit Party will be the chief target for lies and smears in the next few weeks and months.) In the longer run the police repression that will be required to keep the Remain show on the road will be justified in the name of anti-fascism, and this will firmly associate the left with elite authoritarianism in the popular mind.
Unless our current Parliament of Liars is stopped in its tracks then the most likely outcome is a toxic combination of post-democratic disengagement, deep political distrust, revitalized right-wing populism and renewed state repression championed by the left. For these reasons, democrats – people who believe that the people should rule themselves and not be ruled by self-perpetuating elites – need to vote for The Brexit Party at the European elections.
At the same time, we need to recognize that The Brexit Party is only a stop-gap. It is not a solution to the underlying sclerosis of democratic politics that led us into the EU in the first place. The Brexit Party is a temporary, unstable coalition of disenchanted Conservatives, little Englanders, libertarians, former Marxists, radical democrats and previously non-political personalities. It is a political party in name only. It has no members, no constitution, and its programme is for the present deliberately single issue. A broad alliance such as this, committed to defending democracy in principle, is vital right now precisely because it can unite significant sections of the electorate around the crucial issue of the moment. But The Brexit Party is also itself a product of the hollowing out of democracy. It is a post-political operation in branding as much as it is a political organisation, albeit that the brand is democracy. Any electoral success that the party has, essential as that is right now, will only confront us again with the deeper problem of democratic representation. But at least The Brexit Party may force us to confront that problem rather than evade it, as the main parties would prefer to.
Democracy only works in so far as citizens are committed to arguing out different visions of how state and society should work. Real political parties constitute mechanisms through which the population can organise itself in support of those visions. The parties’ internal structures serve to mediate the experience of the population in society to its political representatives in the state. As it currently stands, The Brexit Party can do none of those things. This does not matter for the purposes of the European Parliament elections. The only demand upon Brexit Party representatives elected to that particular body is that they facilitate Britain withdrawing from it. But it means that The Brexit Party, as it is currently constituted, cannot solve the underlying sclerosis of democratic representation.
In time, The Brexit Party is likely to develop into a political party or some novel form of political organisation based around its leader Nigel Farage’s commitment to a socially liberal, free market, national populism. Where does this leave those of us who do not believe that the “free market” or national populism can achieve true popular self-determination, but rather that they only threaten further political fragmentation? Where is our party? It should be clear by now that it cannot be the Labour Party. The large majority of its MPs and its members are committed to frustrating democracy and collective self-determination. To achieve a new party is not just a question of money and numbers, but also of intellectual resources. A new party will require first the elaboration of a new vision of a democratic society and economy, one based on a better grasp of present political and economic reality. The Full Brexit is one place where we can work on that.
About the Author
Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.