“Will of the People” pt. 2: David Davis’ Latest Attack on Democracy

Just when we thought the Brexiteers’ understanding of what constitutes democracy couldn’t get any more convoluted, the chief Brexit negotiator is now trying to tell opposition politicians how to vote. (Petition of complaint attached)

Date – 21/10/2017

In a previous article, I outlined some of the fatal flaws in the democratic process of the original EU referendum. Yet even when these concerns are combined with the deliberate and systematic attempts by the pre-referendum Leave campaign to lie to the public, the sum total is still only half the story of how Brexiteers have consistently shown a blatant disregard for fair democracy. There have been many, many examples of undemocratic means being employed by top Leavers post-referendum, and David Davis’ latest violation could well be one of the worst.

Brexit talks have stalled many times over the issue of the “divorce bill”. (Suffice to say that I admire the EU’s determination and have no respect whatsoever for the Conservatives’ dishonest and unethical quibbling over the UK’s pre-existing financial commitments – for more on this, see my other previous article.) Against this back-drop, it seems unsurprising that the European parliament recently voted not to allow Brexit talks to move on to trade.

Among MEP’s on the winning side in this vote was Catherine Bearder, Liberal Democrat MEP for South-East England. Bearder’s individual vote was, in my opinion, as unsurprising as the outcome of the vote itself. Very simply, an opposition politician voted against the UK government – something which happens every day.

Imagine the surprise of Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, therefore, when he received the following letter:

David Davis Letter

The Tories are now trying to instruct opposition politicians how to vote. 

It really doesn’t take a shrewd observer to see that, when a politician seeks to deny a political opponent’s right to oppose, the democratic process has itself come under attack. This isn’t the first time the Tories have done this. Back in June, Conservative minister Priti Patel told the media that “Labour’s role on Brexit is to support the government”; in other words, she conveniently decided that the role of the opposition was to not oppose.

The Conservatives have paired their attacks on democracy with onslaughts against freedom of information. Faced with an abundance of bad news about Brexit and the government, top Tory Andrea Ledsom called upon broadcasters to be “more patriotic” – in other words, to bury factual information purely because it was inconvenient. Her suggestion has since been eclipsed, however, by David Davis’ persistent refusal to release studies on the impacts of Brexit into the public domain. (There’s a petition on this too, though this one wasn’t started by me.)

This tactic not only constitutes the potential starting point of would-be dictatorship; it also shows great hypocrisy. Ask any top anti-racism activist and they will tell of their despair at how difficult it is to hold British media to account for their irresponsible spreading of biased and xenophobic stories which incite hatred and even fuel violent hate crime. Ironically, the main reason for this lack of social justice is the government’s firm belief in what they call the “free press”.

As a side note, Conservative oppression of freedom of information (and tacit support for racism-fuelling attitudes) is not limited to the direct context of Brexit. Vince Cable recently revealed that during the 2010-2015 parliament, the Conservative party actively suppressed no fewer than nine studies into the effects of immigration. All of these studies found overwhelming evidence to refute common anti-immigration myths; an inconvenient truth in the face of the Conservatives’ increasingly anti-immigrant stance.

To return to the issue of Davis’ letter, it is worth bearing in mind how skilled this Conservative government has been in turning the tide of ill-informed, emotionally super-charged, right-wing populism to its advantage. (The repeated deadlocks in the Brexit talks, for example, have occurred chiefly due to their successful use of this very tactic to portray the EU as unreasonable because of their insistence on upholding the basic principles of financial accountability.) Considering this, note the letter’s barely concealed attempt to whip up fanatical hatred of Bearder by portraying her as a traitor to the UK. Apparently, David Davis considers patriotism and ethics to be entirely incompatible.

Another complaint I have against this letter regards the way in which it depicts UK citizens. I’m confident that I won’t be alone in considering it to be the latest in a long line of Conservative insults to my intelligence. The bottom-left paragraph in particular dismisses several huge issues in single sentences and the sentiments expressed therein are very contradictory to the previous actions of David Davis, his team, and the Conservative administration as a whole. Yet I personally find Davis’ mention of “the interests of UK taxpayers” – his insinuation that his dishonest efforts to exploit the EU through financial malpractice are carried out in the name of ordinary people like myself – to be even more offensive.

David Davis is not satisfied with insulting the intelligence of UK citizens; he also insists on implying that we have no morals at all.

Now may be as good a time as any to touch upon a further issue – the lack of democratic credibility of not just the actions of the current UK government, but the government itself. Theresa May called a snap election earlier this year chiefly in the hope of securing a strong mandate for her ideas on Brexit. Her response to her complete failure to achieve said mandate was to carry on regardless.

Days before the election, the Prime Minister caused panic among liberals with her assertion that she would “tear up human rights laws”, chiefly with the aim of dealing with terrorism. The implications were extremely alarming – it seemed that what May was suggesting was a Guantanamo Bay-style system in which “suspects” could be locked up for years or decades, perhaps even tortured, in appalling conditions without charge, trial or credible evidence. It was, at the very least, an extreme move.

Days later, Theresa May was clinging to power by negotiating with the DUP. This clear violation of the Good Friday agreement risked the resurgence of the IRA; an organisation far more deadly than ISIS in terms of their terror attack death-toll on UK soil over the years. In short, May had weighed human rights against public safety and security – and decided that her own personal power was far more important than either.

The Prime Minister went on to further distort the result of the election by making sweeping assumptions about the feelings of her chief opposition – the Labour party. Lamentable as Jeremy Corbyn’s near-constant lack of clarification as to his position on Europe may be, it’s important to take the order in which events occurred into account. Corbyn took a much more anti-EU stance shortly after the election, a move seen as a betrayal by droves of pro-EU Labour voters. The preceding confusion had allowed many Labour candidates to win votes on pro-European platforms. Often this was at the expense of more hard-line pro-EU parties such as my own, the Liberal Democrats – our former leader Nick Clegg, for example, was felled in precisely this manner. Yet Theresa May has repeatedly ignored all these complications, choosing instead to falsely claim Labour’s 40% share of the vote in the election as a boost of +40% to the Brexiteers.

Of course, any Tory-sympathisers out there need only look at the elephant in the room, hatemonger-in-chief Nigel Farage, to see that things could be worse. Here is a man who’s party, at the height of their power, won just one seat in Westminster. In this year’s election, they received fewer than 1 in 50 votes cast. Not that Farage was still the leader of UKIP at the time, of course; he stepped down shortly after the EU referendum on a thin pretext, presumably to avoid the inevitable backlash against the right as over-optimistic Brexit dreams faded to (at best) disappointing reality. Yet this man, a man who eschewed front-line democratic accountability and now has no tangible public support, seeks to utilise his inexplicable over-exposure in the media to lecture the rest of us on democracy.

In summary, the democratic credentials of many key figures in the Brexit movement are extremely dubious.

Returning to the government, I feel I must also mention perhaps the bitterest irony to the “will of the people” mentality – the way in which it has facilitated Theresa May’s attempts at a personal power grab.

Brexiteers have long been using the “will of the people” argument partly as a shield to hide behind, and partly as a method of ideological bullying by which anyone who would speak against Brexit is silenced for fear of being branded undemocratic. Yet this aggressive tactic is not only used against Remainers, but also against those who question individual details of the government’s Brexit plans, even if they do not intend to oppose Brexit in itself.

To give an example, few will soon forget the tabloids’ “enemies of the people” hate campaign against the three high court judges who ruled that Brexit must, like all other bills and motions, still be subject to normal parliamentary procedure. Their ruling wasn’t even an anti-Brexit motion, but simply a clarification that the normal process of parliamentary democracy could not be dispensed with. All of this did not prevent the incident from being infamously dubbed as “the day democracy died”.

More recently, Theresa May has pounced upon the supposed “devolution of power” from Brussels to Westminster, aiming to ensure that issues currently under the jurisdiction of the European parliament are transferred not to the jurisdiction of the UK parliament but to the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister in person. Concerns have been widely raised over her attempts at “reforms” which would allow her to bypass parliamentary democracy, passing new laws without having them properly scrutinised. She has tried to get away with this attack on democracy by utilising the fear that anyone who opposes her specific version of Brexit will be labelled as being against Brexit as a whole and that, by extension (and using the “will of the people” argument) they will be labelled as undemocratic.

In summary, this is perhaps the greatest irony of the “will of the people” mentality. If you oppose a dictatorial power grab by a single individual, Brexiteer logic dictates that you are an enemy of democracy.

Apologies to any readers who have struggled to follow the thread of this article. It has, in truth, been very difficult to structure neatly. Yet it is my hope that the root of this problem will prove my point; there are so many separate reasons to reject the Brexiteers’ “will of the people” argument (yet also so many connections that can be drawn between them) that to approach the subject without fear of information overload is nigh impossible. Even now, I find my arsenal of arguments against it is still far from exhausted.

To be continued… (once my head stops spinning)

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