Is Brexit a Victory for Democracy?

Two major events have marked a shift in global politics in recent years: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Both the UK referendum and the election of Donald Trump occurred in 2016. These two events revealed that systemic changes were underway. Brexit, for its part, has been an important example of the success of democracy. This was confirmed by the UK's December 2019 legislative elections, which provided a large majority to Boris Johnson, who will thus be able to put an end to the parliamentary sling which had paralyzed the United Kingdom. Until this point, Brexit was the subject of a real political battle, which raged as fiercely between partisan adversaries as between the officials of the European Union and the leaders of the United Kingdom. 


When the injured lion roars louder

The June 2016 referendum results surprised many. It should be remembered that many observers prematurely announced the victory of "remain". Few expected the British to vote to quit the European Union.

One of the aspects of this vote was that it unveiled the deep social breakdown that existed in the United Kingdom. It was the working-class regions and the poor regions that voted for Brexit, while the metropolitan area of ​​London voted against it. Voting was even massive in the East Coast regions of England. In a sense, this vote was the British equivalent of the 2005 referendum in France on the European Constitutional Treaty (TEC). When we look at the geographical distribution of votes, it is clear, as I wrote in my book drawing on the lessons of the victory of the "no" vote in the 2005 referendum, that "the proletarians have defeated the 'bobos'. 

There is, however, a big difference between the referendum on the TCE and that on Brexit. The result of the first was, in France, cancelled by political manoeuvres which saw the centre right (Nicolas Sarkozy and the UMP) and the centre left (the Socialist Party) act hand in hand. On the contrary, a contingent within the British political class recognised the legitimacy of the vote and committed themselves, even if it was initially without enthusiasm, to Brexit. But after taking into account the British vote, the European Union launched a battle to exhaust the forces of the Brexit supporters. This battle of attrition raged from 2017 to 2019. In this battle, the European Union knew that it could count on the support of the adversaries of Brexit within Great Britain.

This policy created a political deadlock in the United Kingdom, which has just ended with voting in the general elections of December 2019.

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Theresa May's failure

Mrs. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister who succeeded David Cameron, a conservative like her, following the "leave" victory in the June 2016 referendum,   had not herself been a supporter of Brexit. But, becoming Prime Minister, she decided to pursue and defend the initiative for the obvious reason that she respected the democratic process. This is to his credit, and for this she must be remembered. This behaviour contrasted with that of French politicians. This behaviour must in fact be compared to that of the French political class after 2005. One can, however, think, in the light of the events which followed, that she did not pursue this role in a sufficiently determined way, which involved the sinking of the years, which followed. The British political class fractured at this point, and the fact that most politicians were out of step with the voters' demands did not help her.

By excluding, from the outset, the option of an exit from the EU without an agreement, what is known in Brussels jargon as a “Hard Brexit”, she had removed an important card from her game. Mrs. May had affirmed, at the same time, the need to reindustrialise the United Kingdom, taking into account the sociological reasons why the majority had voted to leave. This appeared new to Britain, particularly since the tenure of Margaret Thatcher. It was, however, a diversion from part of the historical heritage of the Conservatives. The policy she proposed in the summer of 2016 was actually a refutation of more than thirty years of neo-liberal politics in the United Kingdom. She was unable to get from words to deeds. voters were disenchanted with Theresa May for these two reasons. But this disenchantment did not affect Brexit itself, as officials in Brussels and London believed. 

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The tainted game of the European Union and the reaction of the British electorate

The opposition was therefore violent with European Union officials, who, for their part, were determined to "punish" Britain, a country that had demonstrated that it wanted to forsake the European paradise. We had another example in December 2019, when Ursula von der Layen, the President of the European Commission elected in the summer of 2019, warmly greeted the British "remainers" elected to the European Parliament. We therefore saw Teresa May procrastinating, trapped between the demands of Brussels and the opposing interests of pro-Brexit MPs within her own party, asking for postponement after postponement, and when it was all said and done, her party members largely discredited themselves. At the same time, the pro-Brexit movement did not fail to remember its roots. Nigel Farage, who was one of the important figures of the pro-Brexit camp on the right along with conservative Boris Johnson, re-launched a new party (the Brexit Party) focusing precisely on the principles of democracy, which he intended to see respected. He believed, not without reason, that the opponents of Brexit were flouting democracy by trying to prevent it by delaying tactics. Significantly, this new party had attracted people, like Ms. Claire Fox, whose ideas were the opposite of Farage's ones on many points, but who shared with him the idea that respecting the 2016 referendum was a central question for British democracy. The latter's massive victory in the European parliamentary elections of 23 May 2019 were a wake-up call.   The Conservatives' defeat at the hands of the Brexit Party led to the resignation of Theresa May and the choice of Boris Johnson as the new Prime Minister.

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Boris Johnson's fight

The latter found himself however, in the same situation as Theresa May, with a Parliament which remained at an impasse regarding Brexit. After having exhausted all the procedural and manoeuvring possibilities provided for in Anglo-Saxon parliamentary life, he decided to dissolve the parliament and to call for new elections, which took place in December 2019. The latter saw a historic victory for the Conservatives, who won 48 seats and therefore now hold a comfortable majority in Westminster, and an equally historic defeat for Labour, who lost 60. This defeat is symptomatic. It confirms, if necessary, that it is the working classes that support Brexit the most. Having almost forgotten it, the Labour Party has seen itself returned to its predicament before 1935. This should therefore encourage the leaders of this party to question their strategy. The economic columnist for the leftist English newspaper The Guardian, has publicly acknowledged this. In fact, if the Labour Party does not take the national dimension into account when assessing the aspirations of the working class, it is lost and doesn't stand a chance of recovery.

Indeed, very clearly, these elections revolved around the question of Brexit. The defeat of the Liberal Democrats, the only party that was directly opposed to Brexit, confirms this. The fact that many MP candidates from the Brexit Party refused to run in order to avoid splitting the vote of the “brexiters” attests to this. Incidentally, it could also mean the end of Nigel Farage's plan to create a new party, now that Boris Johnson has become the champion of Brexit.

Despite the delays, Brexit will therefore take place on January 31, 2020. It will constitute a victory for democracy and politics over the mode of governance desired and disseminated by the supporters of "globalisation". It also signifies a major failure for the European Union, the contradictions and shortcomings of which, particularly regarding the question of democracy, are exposed. 


Brexit: an episode or a rupture?

Brexit, if we look at it with a little hindsight, might seem like an episode affecting only the countries of the European Union. But, beyond this aspect, it carries within it a question of principles: respect for the decision and the sovereignty of the people in the face of a will to impose a government by standards drawn up by politically irresponsible "experts". This is why it has become a symbol today. But Brexit is just a return to the fundamentals of democracy. It tells us almost nothing about the political and economic choices that will be made after separation from the EU is complete. If, therefore, Boris Johnson has obtained a clear and massive mandate to carry out Brexit, this mandate does not necessarily extend to the economic policy he intends to implement. The latter is a strange mixture of a return to public interventionism and neo-liberalism. Mr. Johnson would therefore be well advised to also measure the limits of the mandate he received from British voters.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.