Where's your dictatorship button?
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.