- Philip Cunliffe
The End of a Final Say on Anything, Ever
Since a snap general election was called, the Labour Party has made a “final say” on Brexit a key plank of its platform – that is to say, another referendum on Brexit. This policy is presented as aiming to bring finality and closure to Brexit after three years of prevarication and bitterness, removing the issue from a quarrelsome and impotent parliament to return it to the sagacity of the public. However far from being the “final say” on the matter, Labour’s proposal would unravel the democratic compact in this country and mean that there would never be a final say on anything in British politics, ever again.
A “final say” referendum is an ingenious piece of political opportunism and meretricious populist sloganeering. On the one hand, a “final say” referendum allows the Labour Party to soak up scepticism over Boris Johnson’s deal while, on the other hand, also appearing to retain the democratic legitimacy that Revokers, such as the Liberal Democrats, lack. Liberal Democratic leader Jo Swinson has already said she would ignore another vote to leave, and that if her party constituted a government they would simply overturn Brexit through parliament. The Labour Party, by contrast, has argued that it will negotiate a new, better deal with Brussels and then leave the final decision with the public, offering the voters a choice between Remain or the new Labour-negotiated deal as a “credible leave option”. The Labour Party appears to side with the public and differentiates itself from both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.
Yet the very language of a “credible” option betrays the bad faith of this offer, indicating that the Labour leadership still see the original Brexit vote as incredible, as shocking and dangerous. That the Labour Party would contemplate continuing to delay our leaving the EU in favour of yet more negotiations betrays the contempt in which they hold democracy. A new plebiscite on Brexit would not only further erode representative democracy, it would also snap the link between the taking of a democratic decision and its enactment. It is the enactment of a decision that ensures that democracy has force and meaning. Without this link, national votes would become mere opinion polls rather than acts of meaningful democratic choice.
What is more, by offering the public the choice to Remain after this option was already rejected in 2016, the Labour Party is forging the weapons for the rich and powerful in the class wars of the future. With a “final say” referendum the Labour Party is inviting civil servants, employers, industrialists’ associations, CEOs, bankers, lawyers, financiers, academics, op-ed columnists to resist any future democratic decision that is not to their taste. Whenever these groups confront a democratic decision in future, they will know that as long as they are able to mobilise their powers of recalcitrance, resistance, slander, scorn and subversion, they will be able to halt, erode and eventually entirely dissolve any national vote that they oppose. In such circumstances, why would anyone feel the need to be bound by any democratic decision ever again? Decision-making by the majority would cease to be the means to generate legitimacy for political choice, and without it, coercion will inevitably expand as the default means for extracting political consent. There will no longer be a definitive means of collective decision-making and political finality, and without this, the social and political institutions of the country as a whole will fragment and disintegrate.
By its very nature a “final say” on Brexit entails that the 2016 referendum was not a final say, and that therefore democracy is not final either. A “final say” on Brexit will be a significant historical defeat for democracy not only here in Britain or even just in Europe, but in the world at large. If a majority decision can be delayed and then eventually overturned in a leading liberal democracy such as Britain, what hope is there for those struggling in much more difficult circumstances? What hope for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, in Algeria or in Sudan, if a majority vote cannot be implemented in Britain? A “final say” referendum on Brexit will not only be the end of any final say on anything in British politics, it will also usher in a new dark age for democracy around the world.