Those attacking the Tory pledge to “Get Brexit Done” are telling the electorate that There Is No Alternative. They are wrong about this, but equally we can’t expect the Tories to provide that alternative. Both sides are committed to depoliticisation, not the democratic potential, of the Brexit decision.
In the midst of political campaigning in the general election, one of the criticisms levelled at the Tories is that their slogan of “Get Brexit Done” is a con. This Tory Party slogan, emblazoned on the party manifesto, suggests that, if returned with a sufficiently strong majority, a Tory government will be empowered finally to extract Britain from membership of the European Union (EU), as we voted for in 2016, and on the terms negotiated by Boris Johnson earlier this year. The criticism levelled against the Tories is that they are deceiving the electorate, because once we formally leave the EU we must negotiate a new trading arrangement with Brussels, which will take significantly longer than the 11 months of the transition period, scheduled to end in December 2020. “The UK’s departure from the European Union is only the start of a new phase in the Brexit odyssey”, writes the Guardian’s Jennifer Rankin. These new negotiations will not only be complex and difficult, they will also last for years, further complicated by questions of devolution within the UK itself. In a lecture delivered at Glasgow University on 25 November, former British ambassador to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers claimed that there will be “no escape from ball-achingly technical and lengthy negotiations”.
The argument is that EU will inevitably snarl us up in endless, excruciating negotiations in which Britain will likely have to accept imposed terms and compromise frequently. Much existing EU law, already copied and pasted into UK legislation, will have to be retained. The message is clear: to those voters exhausted by the parliamentary bickering and political chicanery, we will still not escape from Brexit simply by enacting the Brexit vote. Brexit will still dominate the headlines for years to come, this time in terms of tedious, back-room trade negotiations rather than parliamentary shenanigans, and the EU will pile up so many restrictions on British trade that it will effectively neuter Brexit.
The sub-text of these warnings is also not difficult to discern: Brexit is so much trouble, they suggest, why not just junk the whole thing – or at least be sure that we really want this. Why not have another vote, just to be sure? Once this sub-text is foregrounded, it becomes clear that these grave warnings over the Byzantine complexity of trade negotiations are really another way of saying TINA – There Is No Alternative. The clear implication is that the complexity of modern trade deals trumps democracy and is beyond the scope of ordinary voters to comprehend or follow. Leave it to the experts.
As ever with claims about TINA, it is also disingenuous. The idea that membership of the EU is little more than a good trade deal – which makes leaving the EU so irrational – confuses two aspects of sovereignty: internal sovereignty and external sovereignty. Any external constraints that Britain may have to accept in trade negotiations with Brussels in order to gain access to the EU market, for instance, are qualitatively different from the internal restrictions on popular sovereignty that come with being a member-state of the EU.
Being a member of the EU rewires internal sovereignty far more than it compromises a country’s external sovereignty. It does this by rerouting decision-making through Brussels, empowering the executive to legislate through its capacity to engage in diplomacy. Civil servants go to secret meetings in Brussels with other countries’ civil servants, reach collective agreement on their views, and then funnel these decisions back to sitting governments to pass into national law by-passing domestic politics. It inverts the process of democratic deliberation and legislation, in which the political process is intended to mediate the collective interests of society at large.
In other words, while leaving the EU may indeed force Britain to accept external restrictions – perhaps even onerous ones – in order to secure good trade deals, whether that be in Washington, Brussels, Delhi or Beijing, this is fundamentally different from the way in which membership of the EU compromises the democratic integrity of domestic decision-making. Ultimately, one can always say “no” to a bad trade deal; but one cannot say “no” to any particular aspect of the EU’s constitutional order – one can only ditch the whole thing.
The Tories’ slogan of “Get Brexit Done” indicates that they have no intention of realising the democratic potential of Brexit. Quite apart from the deeply troubling terms of the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson, his slogan is a quintessentially depoliticising one. With this message, it is clear that they are hoping to entice voter apathy by appealing to voter exhaustion among both pro-democratic Remainers (“Releavers”) and Leave-voters, by promising to end the seemingly endless parliamentary prevarication over Brexit. Their message is, Let’s end this commotion, and return to normalcy.
But Brexit was a demand for enfranchisement and greater popular control – and these are things that bar us from returning to the status quo ante. It is also something that the Tories are incapable of delivering, as indicated by their lacklustre campaign promises and platitudinous slogans. They offer no vision of constitutional renewal, no offer to revitalise the compact between the nations of Britain, nor any promise of democratic rejuvenation. The most that is offered is tax cuts and state spending, a contemptuously transparent attempt to buy off voters.
Four years after the Tories made a referendum on Brexit part of their party platform in a general election, all that they tell us about what Britain will look like outside the EU is … “Get Brexit Done”. Three years on from the 2016 referendum, and Brexit is still crippled by the failures of the Leave campaign. A Tory government will doubtless be happy to snarl up the country in endless trade negotiations that will justify extending the transition period to please their traditional backers among business leaders, while they quietly euthanize democratic renewal.
What the general election reaffirms is that there is no party that champions the cause of democracy, the cause of popular sovereignty and the cause of renewal: whoever wins the election, the popular expectations raised through the Brexit referendum of 2016 will inevitably be dashed.