“When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious what they had in mind was not democratic. In Britain, you vote for a government so the government has to listen to you, and if you don’t like it you can change it.”- Tony Benn.
It was obvious from the start that once the UK voted to leave the EU the losing side of that argument would never accept the democratic result. They would exploit any issue from the Northern Ireland border to jobs, wages, xenophobia and mostly any and all economic downturns.
All arguments to the contrary will ignore. What is or is not happening on mainland Europe and their economic issues will not be part of the debate. Of course, any scrutiny will be rebutted and denied, and any proof will be unacceptable, but the truth is leaving the EU was always a democratic question and not an economic one.
Constantly the Remain camp asks: Was Brexit worth it? Any true democrat must answer unequivocally: yes, absolutely.
The Full Brexit answer is simple: yes. From the perspective of any democrat, Brexit is undoubtedly the most important political event of a generation. Many nominally on the Left wish that the referendum had never happened, blame their own Remainer political failures on the People’s Vote “extremists”, or maintain a “Eurosceptic” position while still advocating EU membership. But, at The Full Brexit, we will not qualify or water down our support for the exercise of mass democracy that Brexit represented. Although Brexit remained a democratic moment without a democratic movement, it carried – and still carries – the promise and possibility of democratic renewal.
The vote to leave the EU was a shattering of the status quo, both analytical and political. In 2016, ordinary citizens dared to cast their votes against the advice, hectoring, and scaremongering of almost the entire political class, backed by phalanxes of “experts”, the US president, and the international financial institutions. After the referendum, commentators, analysts, and psephologists alike found themselves unable to accept, explain, or respond to a profound political event that they had not seen coming. The fallout from Brexit almost split both major parties, and proved to be the catalyst for a historic realignment, the culmination of a rupture between the working class and the Labour Party.
“We did not fight for the vote to have it dismissed or overturned!” -Michael Foot
Brexit was also enormously educational. It showed the real interests and limitations of the Corbynite Left, who despite their radical pretensions were either wedded to the status quo or, being thoroughly opportunistic, were willing to betray the democratic vote of the referendum to achieve electoral success. At the same time, it demonstrated the commitment of the working class to the 2016 vote and to popular sovereignty. Sovereignty is a concept that frightens the liberal Left because it denotes the desire and will to rule ourselves; it is worth remembering that it was the number one reason cited by Leave supporters as to why they wanted to leave the EU.
Although we neither expected nor got a Full Brexit from Boris Johnson, it is still the case that Brexit is historically progressive, even when carried out by a Conservative government. This is because Brexit is based on the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK and the decision-makers should be fully accountable to the UK’s electorate for those decisions.
As we have argued since our formation in 2018, leaving the EU was never a magical panacea that would cure all our political, economic and social ills. It was a necessary but not sufficient step. It opened up an opportunity for democratic renewal, which would in turn create opportunities to tackle some of our country’s deep-seated problems. We also warned that political elites were failing to seize these opportunities. Two years later, far too little has changed in this respect. The process of renewal is far slower than anyone would like. The underlying sclerosis in our politics is not magically solved by Brexit, and we have already paid a heavy price in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic for the incompetence and authoritarianism that has long bedevilled our weak, neoliberal state.
Nonetheless, even if we have not yet seen a new democratic movement emerge from the Brexit’s democratic moment, we are beginning to see stirrings of life and glimmers of accountability in our democracy after decades of disengagement and domination by identikit parties. The 2019 election demonstrated the political cost now associated with ignoring the electorate. The Conservatives won not just because they promised to enact the 2016 referendum, but because they had accepted the need to adjust their policy platform to win popular support. Having campaigned against Brexit in 2016 and championed austerity before that, the Tories promised to enact Brexit, dumped austerity, and promised to “level up” the “left behind” areas that had revolted against the establishment in 2016. They understand that if they fail to deliver – a clear possibility, given their shambolic performance in 2020 – they will suffer electoral defeat. Labour has yet to learn its lesson, hoping to win back its lost “red wall” with a few socially conservative cultural gestures, while still fundamentally clinging to a technocratic, economically liberal status quo.
These are the painfully slow grindings of a political system struggling to realign to basic principles of sovereignty and democratic representation. That the process is so dismally limited only demonstrates how deeply the rot had penetrated, and why it was so important to terminate Britain’s member-statehood. Britain’s political parties have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, back to their electors. Without the EU to hide behind, they have no one else to blame for their lack of vision or failure to deliver. We are all forced to confront their unfitness and, eventually, we will have to take responsibility for replacing them with something better. Brexit was the necessary start of that process – not the end.
About the Authors
The Full Brexit steering group comprises Christopher Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe, Mary Davis, Maurice Glasman, George Hoare, Lee Jones, Costas Lapavitsas, Martin Loughlin, Danny Nicol, Peter Ramsay, Anshu Srivastava and Richard Tuck.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.