Where's your dictatorship button?

Glen Newey

Where's your dictatorship button? When is a democratic decision bad enough for you to override it, if you could, by personal fiat? Most people have such a button; those who claim not to are vulnerable to a form of the argumentum ad Hitlerum. Others are remarkably sanguine about deploying it, for example when they disagree with the result of a plebiscite about membership of a trade association. They have various button-masking props, such as citing the fact that – in an extraordinary departure from normal political practice – campaigners for the other side (and only they) were less than wholly truthful; though unlike their gullible co-electors, the button-pressers weren’t fooled.

Here's a tougher question about the button: when could you deploy it with legitimate authority? Some people seem to think that their own moral intuitions, if held with enough fervour, suffice for the purpose. But it remains unclear what makes them – the convictions, or the person who has them – special. Their being true might make them special, but that's a trump everyone thinks they can play, and democrats are rightly wary of saying that beliefs become special simply because of the person who has them. With people not in agreement, and in fact in implacable disagreement, the best proxy for the truth seems to be a procedure: for instance, a referendum. ‘The people's will’ may be imperfectly expressed through such devices, but can't be dialled up via a non-procedural route.

So much for theory. No one knows where real-world Brexit is heading, least of all those charged with achieving it. Last week Matthew Parris compared the Tories in disarray to Mike the headless chicken, who survived for 18 months after decapitation. This is unfair to Mike, who seems to have lacked little in the way of executive cohesion after losing most of his head, whereas the government – and this was true even before Theresa May went on holiday – resembles a headless flock. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, suggests that free movement will continue for three years after March 2019; the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, insists that there is no cabinet consensus about this. As Fox put it, with his trademark combo of dullness and dogmatism, 'We made it clear that control of our own borders was one of the elements we wanted in the referendum, and unregulated free movement would seem to me not to keep faith with that decision.’

'We' is always a politically valent pronoun, both in practice and theory (where its use in argument is often question-begging). An obvious question to ask someone who goes on about what 'we' want is: 'You and who else?' Unfortunately for Fox, the British electorate didn't make it clear that it wanted control of its borders in the referendum, because it wasn't asked that question. Jeremy Corbyn also talks as if membership of the EU were needed to belong to the single market. It isn’t: non-EU members of the European Economic Area, such as Norway, can belong to the single market. Leaving the EU is compatible with EEA or (as with Switzerland) EFTA membership. These possibilities have been whistled away since last June on the plea that the vote showed that ‘the people’ want to block the ingress of foreigners (though more come into the UK from outside the EU than from within it). Demanding 'no free movement' is itself an exercise in pressing the override button.

Hard Brexiters will and do maintain that the 2016 vote authorised leaving the single market; free movement fails to keep faith with the spirit of Brexit. This is a post-referendum construction, one explicitly denied by Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan during the campaign. Using last year's result to leverage withdrawal from the single market amounts to bait-and-switch. H.L. Mencken said that democracy is the theory that says that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. Politicians on both sides have spent the past year telling people what they didn't know they wanted, and didn't vote for.


  • 4 August 2017 at 9:36pm
    Stu Bry says:
    The most likely outcome is Hard Brexit then our relationship with the EU being rebuilt piece by piece over a decade or so until it is effectively back to 2015 levels. In ten years living standards in the UK vs A10 will have converged enough to make freedom of movement far less of an issue.

    It comes down to whether the cost of Brexit and repairing our relationship with the EU is more or less than the cost of damaging the perception of democracy in the UK. There will be no second referendum for two reasons (i) no one credible wants to front the pro EU side (ii) if Leave was to win again things would be much worse.

    • 5 August 2017 at 6:58am
      Joe Morison says: @ Stu Bry
      How do you know no one credible would want to front the pro EU side? (And who among the Brexotics has any credibility left?)

      Why would things be much worse if Leave won again? (And how could they when so many of their lies have been exposed, and every day the immense stupidity of the decision becomes ever clearer?)

    • 6 August 2017 at 3:11pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Joe Morison
      As much as I would like to believe Mr. Morrison's reasoning in his second comment, it strikes me as wishful thinking. Put this statement ("And how could they . . . etc. ?") to the Trump test, and you will see that in spite of constant exposure of his lies and the stupidity of having voted for him becoming more apparent by the day, his followers support the man with increasing commitment. Why would pro-Brexit voters (many of whom, like Trumpists, are "white-resentment-backlash voters") behave any differently? In for a penny, in for a pound.

    • 7 August 2017 at 7:36am
      Joe Morison says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I think the Trump analogy is spot on. He has his 'deplorables', about 40% of those who actually vote, who will be loyal no matter what; but there are what one might call the reasonable Republicans, and they are increasingly deserting him. The GOP certainly seems to have concluded that he has no hope in 2020 as we see in the New York Times article which has led to Pence strenuously denying he's manoeuvring to run.

      Let's call the Brexit equivalent the determined. Again, I'd guess they are about 40%, and for sure nothing will change their minds - they are the people who following their leader, the ghastly Farage, like to talk about 'blood on the streets' if the decision is reversed (it's so very appropriate that Trump and Farage are such buddies). But, as with the deplorables, the determined are not enough to win another vote. A significant enough minority voted Leave because they believed the lies; and in 18 months or so the number of those who realize they have been duped can only grow.

      I urge everyone to get out and protest. There's the People's March for Europe in London on 9th September, and a Stop Brexit March in Manchester on the first day of the Tory conference. And if you live in a marginal seat, email your MP that your vote at the next election depends on their Brexit behaviour.

      We live in a democracy, the country has the right to change its mind. We can, and must, stop this madness!

  • 5 August 2017 at 9:09am
    cufflink says:
    We do have a way through Glen's impasse, we invoke the device of Legal Fiction and put forward the fact that there has been a trespass in Middlesex and the Remainers take charge as the ruling court.
    As Glen wisely intimates the 'put' question of the referendum was invalid in strict constitutional terms as it gave no weighted sway to result nor was it clear as to procedural outcome in what it intends.
    On these grounds alone there should be a Parliamentary election to reframe the choices.

  • 8 August 2017 at 8:25pm
    John Cowan says:
    It is far from clear that the EFTA members would accept the UK as a member; it would instantly reduce them to economic insignificance. Leagues with one dominant member don't go well, from the Delian League to the OAS.

  • 9 August 2017 at 8:20am
    Coldish says:
    The Brexit referendum posed a stupid question and received the answer it deserved. Having promised that his government would carry out the electorate’s wishes, Prime Minister Cameron bravely walked out and was replaced by a closet English nationalist who saw no further reason to hide her contempt for all things European. When she realised that her parliamentary majority was smaller than the number of pro-Europe Tory MPs, thus threatening her plan to implement an extreme interpretation of Brexit, she appealed to the electorate to strengthen her Brexit negotiating position by increasing her majority - thus making the 2017 general election a kind of back-up referendum. We should be grateful to Ms May for giving the electorate a second chance to make its views on the subject clear. The voters made it clear that a hard Brexit was not what they wanted by deleting her majority. So we now know that a hard Brexit is not acceptable. That’s what has happened so far.
    So what happens next? The choice is now between a ‘soft’ Norwegian-style Brexit (i.e. the UK staying within the customs union and the single market, retaining freedom of movement and recognising the authority of the ECJ, but not being represented in the European Commission or the European parliament) and a ‘No’ Brexit (keeping things as they are - assuming that the Article 50 notification can be rescinded).
    As a long-term Eurosceptic, who sees many faults with the EU and an urgent need for fundamental reforms, I would prefer Britain to continue to play a policy-making role within Europe. However if that turns out to be impossible we can manage with the soft option.

    • 9 August 2017 at 2:05pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Coldish
      If being a Euroscpeptic means seeing "many faults with the EU and an urgent need for fundamental reforms", I don't know a Remainer who isn't one. By that definition, I'd class not being a Euroscpeptic as being as boneheaded as the most gormless Brexoticism.

      I think most Remainers see the EU much like Churchill saw democracy: the worst way of governing Europe apart from all the others that have been tried.

  • 9 August 2017 at 10:59am
    Simon Wood says:
    It's nice to read a Eurosceptic view you can believe in. But who will trust Britain now? Has it become a country of "liberals" and "patriots" with nothing in between (the ears)?

    I looked in a school atlas the other day - it had a simple map of world population density. The hotspots run from left to right: LA, New York, England, Japan.

    It is quite clear from the map that London is the capital of Europe.

Read more