What the Capitol riots and the plot to stop Brexit have in common

7 January 2022

6:50 PM

7 January 2022

6:50 PM

It’s not often that browsing the genteel aisles of Waterstones reminds you of madmen storming the Capitol in buffalo-horn helmets, but that’s the buzz I got as I briskly scanned the History shelves. I happened on a slender volume called How To Stop Brexit, written by Nick Clegg. I’d never heard of the book (a realisation that probably attaches to quite a lot of books by Lib Dem leaders) so I pulled it out, with curiosity. The text, I thought, must be a new thing, written since we finally Brexited and Clegg joined Facebook. But no: it was published in 2017. It seems I was holding a kind of revolutionary pamphlet, advising Remainers how they might ignore Britain’s largest ever democratic vote, and get it reversed, thus evading the will of the people.

Ignoring and reversing a democratic vote is particularly piquant right now as the world remembers, much more vividly, what happened in Washington DC a year ago: when angry Trumpites marched through the American capital, intent on annulling the US presidential election, and reinstalling The Donald.

The philosophical similarities between the two enterprises, thwarting a referendum and thwarting a US election, are obvious. In October 2019, Remainers even did their own enormous march on the UK parliament, demanding a ‘second vote’ (ludicrously re-named a ‘people’s vote’, as if 33 million people didn’t vote in the first one). And yet, for some reason, we happily forgive and forget this anti-democratic scheming, even as we revile and remember the MAGA hat wearers. Why? Is there some fundamental difference, beyond the absence of nooses and QAnon conspiracies on this side of the pond?

One way some Remainers tried to justify their anti-democratic actions, at the time, was via the claim that the Brexit vote was somehow ‘advisory’: little more than an opinion poll, which would then somehow ‘inform’ our political approach to the EU, or not. This is specious drivel, and we know this because the prime minister told us so. Here is David Cameron, speaking at Chatham House, in 2015. It is worth quoting him at length, because he is so perfectly explicit:

‘Ultimately it will be the judgment of the British people in the referendum… You will have to judge what is best for you and your family, for your children and grandchildren, for our country, for our future. It will be your decision whether to remain in the EU on the basis of the reforms we secure, or whether we leave. Your decision. Nobody else’s. Not politicians’. Not Parliament’s. Not lobby groups’. Not mine. Just you. You, the British people, will decide. At that moment, you will hold this country’s destiny in your hands. This is a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes. And it will be the final decision.’

Piquantly – in the light of what unfurled after June 2016 – Cameron goes on to say this:

‘So to those who suggest that a decision in the referendum to leave would merely produce another stronger renegotiation, and then a second referendum in which Britain would stay, I say: think again. The renegotiation is happening right now. And the referendum that follows will be a once in a generation choice. An in or out referendum. When the British people speak, their voice will be respected – not ignored. If we vote to leave, then we will leave. There will not be another renegotiation and another referendum.’

Apart from saying, ‘Nick Clegg, don’t write that stupid book’ or ‘Keir Starmer, don’t repeatedly ask for a second vote’ (which Starmer did, when he was shadow Brexit secretary), then it is difficult to see how Cameron could have been clearer. The Brexit vote is final; the Brexit vote, whichever way it goes, will be respected. Yet it was not.

Does any of this matter? Well yes, it really does. And to get a sense why, here’s a thought experiment. Imagine if the Scots had voted Yes to independence in 2014. Imagine if, after that, a group of Scots had decided to ignore this vote and force another to overturn it; imagine if some had gone even further and suggested Scotland simply revoke the Yes vote (the official Lib Dem policy on Brexit in the 2019 General Election). The result would, firstly, have been a total collapse in democracy in Scotland, as people realised it was not worth participating in elections; it could also have resulted in civil disorder, as Scottish Nationalists realised they had no democratic route to independence, and any Yes vote could simply be upended. Some would surely have turned to violence.

Is the wider UK somehow different to Scotland? Of course not. Which means the Remain campaign from 2016-2019 was, indeed, a polite, elongated British version of what unfolded in Washington DC a year ago. It was a stupid and dangerous assault on democracy. We just skipped the buffalo-horn helmets.

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