Democracy is not fixed by one vote

Published by The i paper (30th September, 2019)

Boris Johnson has long dreamed of his first party conference as prime minister, telling a few gags to the Tory troops and soaking up acclaim from his adoring fans. Yet in recent days even this ferociously ambitious man, so driven by insecurity, might have wondered if it has been worth it after a succession of disasters since taking office in July. He looks exhausted, his messy private life has flared into headlines, his strategy has been shredded, his party has split, he has been outflanked by parliamentary rivals and humbled by judges.

One well-placed source told me The Queen had, for the first time in her reign, sought advice on sacking a prime minister before the Supreme Court verdict. I have no idea if this is true – it would be denied by all concerned – but the fact it was suggested by such a figure underscores the scale of Johnson’s difficulties.

Yet far from showing humility, let alone slightest desire to fulfil hollow talk of unifying the country, he is pressing on with a dangerously inflammatory approach dictated by Dominic Cummings of firing up ‘the people’ against ‘parliament’.

Cummings admits there is ‘a strong democratic case’ for a second referendum to ensure public consent for Brexit. Yet Downing Street pursues crude populism with divisive talk of betrayal and surrender, even crass warnings of civil unrest if the prime minister does not get his way. No deal is more likely to spark insurgency then a short extension to the exit timetable. Yet their stance demonises foes, raises tensions and rips apart conventions.

These are the tricks, ugly tactics and linguistic manipulations used by a new wave of nationalists from Moscow to Washington, which take root in fractured places lacking confidence in the future.

One thing for sure: this is not One Nation Conservatism. Tories attending their annual bash in Manchester, remodelled as a nativist rally while ministers spray around cash, should ponder what has happened to their party. They are in the same position as their Republican cousins in the United States – forced to chose between tribal loyalty to a wrecking ball leader and standing up for their values.

Voters in Doncaster last week told me they saw no difference between the Tories and the Brexit Party, showing how fast the thin veneer of David Cameron’s modernisation has been stripped away as the nasty party gets exposed again. Johnson’s electoral strategy might work if he can attract enough Brexiteers in the north and Midlands to make up for losses in London, Scotland and the South-East. But I am sceptical. Meanwhile it is corroding the party’s future by alienating young, female and ethnic minority voters.

It is incredibly high-risk: for himself, his party and above all for a country that already lacks faith in its flailing political class. And it is based on a big fat misconception, frequently voiced and used to justify the bid to subvert parliament through prorogation – that the referendum vote 39 months ago is sacrosanct as the democratic will of the people.

Put aside debates over campaign deceptions, let alone that the referendum was simply advisory. Consider this: what would have happened if Cameron had won that vote? Would Eurosceptic MPs who tormented four Tory prime ministers have stopped agitating? Would Brexiteer pundits have stopped thundering against Brussels? Would Nigel Farage have meekly accepted the result and slunk back into the night? Of course not. The Brexit Party leader admitted as much before the vote: ‘In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way,’ he said.

These folk might have retreated to lick their wounds for a while but they would soon have been fulminating against foreigners and demanding our departure again. We live in a democracy so they would have been fully entitled to keep fighting for their cause. Labour did not pack up after losing the last election. Scottish nationalists kept flying their flag after referendum defeat. Those seeking a change in the voting system are not called traitors for still pushing a concept crushed by voters.

Johnson’s talk of surrender is not just dangerous in such a dark political climate but deeply undemocratic. There is nothing treacherous about fighting for your beliefs – and if you think Brexit to be a bad mistake for your country then you are entitled to seek rejection. This is the core foundation of our freedoms – and those opposing Brexit show we live in a vigorous democracy. As former Brexit minister David Davis said: ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.’

Politicians trying to shut down debate in the name of ‘democracy’ show how little they understand about this political system. In South Yorkshire last week I met one thoughtful man who had changed his mind on voting leave after seeing the damage it will cause farmers and small businesses. A polling firm carrying out focus groups among leavers in the region found three out of 20 people selected had switched sides. A Daily Mail survey found a six-point lead for Remain in a fresh referendum.

Brexiteers claim the referendum result is sacrosanct and their foes defy democracy because they are weak and scared. They echo dictators who claim to be democrats after winning disputed ballots, failing to see how this precious system rests on a web of freedoms and rights rather than a single vote.

These are tough times for our county, with cultural and economic differences inflamed by the Brexit mess and no clear escape path. As the prime minister rallies his troops, he might remember democracies die through erosion of the values that underpin institutions. He should dial down his demagoguery, stop inflaming division and start behaving like a true democrat.

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