The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Democratic Ethics of Brexit

The bottom line here is that there was a referendum, and “leave” won.

All my life, I have eaten election and referendum results I hated. I have done so because of democratic legitimacy: The people, even if I or anyone else think they are wrong, are the source of legitimate rule.

There was a referendum. Leave won. Brexit should, thus, be the policy of the government.

At the same time, like any policy, the idea is to do it right, and both May’s plan and Hard Brexit will be very bad for Britain.

When people voted, they voted to Leave without really knowing what it would mean.

So we have a situation where the parties policies are:

The Tory policy is to leave no matter what, even if it’s against the law, against parliament, and will be disastrous.

Lib-Dem’s policy is “Fuck the referendum, we should just stay.”

Labour’s policy is to negotiate a deal to leave, then put it to a referendum.

I don’t think Labour’s stance (which was re-affirmed today by the membership) is the best politics. But it is the path which maintains democratic legitimacy, the primacy of parliament, and tries to make sure that, if Brexit, happens it is not disastrous.

It is, to my mind, the actual right policy in ethical terms. Both the referendum and the parliament have legitimacy, and that legitimacy should be respected.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 22, 2019


UK Supreme Court Rules Prorogue Illegal


  1. Herman

    I agree. There will be bad results from Brexit but the pro-Brexit side won fair and square. I would add that Remain supporters don’t do themselves any favors by arguing that Leave voters are just dumb xenophobes and the like. Xenophobia played a part in the Leave vote but so did class. Brexit and all of the other right-wing populist movements sweeping the West are the direct result of the elite, including the left and center-left, ignoring many festering problems and writing people off as losers in the brave new global economy. It is too bad that the right has been more successful at harnessing popular dissatisfaction but this is what happens when you get caught sleeping at the wheel.

    I think this is similar to what happened in the 1970s when the post-war consensus came under strain. The right had built up a big network of think tanks, intellectuals, politicians and media outlets to drive public opinion to the right. The left was caught flat-footed and didn’t seem to have good answers to stagflation, the oil crisis, rising crime rates, urban blight and other problems.

  2. edmondo

    Who knows what Labour’s stance is? It changes every day. Just like only Hillary could have lost to Trump, only Corbyn could make the Tories look respectable. And they both managed to do it.

  3. Temporarily Sane

    The Remain position that the referendum was conceived by PM David Cameron in a desperate attempt to stop UKIP from eating into the Tory’s base and thus was not enacted in good faith or that a 2/3 majority should have been required for such a momentous decision are valid. But Remain only “realized” this after they lost a referendum they fully expected to win. During the run up to the vote both Remain and Leave treated the referendum question at face value. Remain discovering after it lost a referendum it accepted as legitimate that maybe it was terrible politics from the beginning just makes them look like losers who can’t accept that they lost.

    The UK is in a very unenviable position. If a hard Brexit goes through the country will be sold to Trump’s buddies and other US business interests by Boris and his clown posse; if Brexit is postponed indefinitely or voided altogether, the fallout may end up destroying the UK as a union.

  4. Stirling S Newberry

    The problem with the referendum is its lack of specifics. What if we set up a referendum “Give everyone a million dollars.” It passes. Good luck with that. Since any move requires the EU – and that means specifics, the referendum must have the actual deal, not a vague suggestion.

  5. anonone

    The Brexit referendum was tainted by Russian interference on the pro-leave side.

    It does not have democratic legitimacy.

  6. Hugh

    Specifics, that’s the ticket. Run a referendum with more specifics. If you don’t get the result you want, not enough specifics. Have another with more specifics, and another as needed. That’s democracy. The rubes get to vote, and the deciders get to decide.

    OK, these specifics, if they had any substance, would amount to a pre-negotitation position that would evaporate if the EU/Germany simply stand no. What then? throw up your hands and say, well, that’s that. We tried.

    I’ve been disappointed with Corbyn because he has let Brexit be all about Britain when it is really about the failure of the European project, and the responsibility for most of that failure rests with Germany, and its rich and elites.

  7. Hugh

    anonone is right. It isn’t that the Remainers were out of touch and ran a shit awful campaign (OK, they were and they did, but let’s ignore this). It was those damn Russkies –again.

  8. S Brennan

    Agree, anytime there is an election outcome that the elite don’t luv, “good people” know it’s gotta be either RACISM or, RUSKIES, only a “deplorable rube” would think otherwise. And so it goes…

  9. bruce wilder

    Politics in Britain is conducted by an elite political class many of whom do not see their jobs as political journalists as requiring that they report fairly and accurately, or their jobs as MPs as requiring that they represent the interests of their electoral constituency, et cetera. They instead pursue careers that involve threading a needle between doing what various patrons in business and among the wealthy want done and manipulating or placating popular opinion.

    It is a system that tends to populate the political party establishments with cynical manipulators with few principles or moral committments. Whatever ideological ambitions any one in British politics may have had have dessicated as various hot buttons have been overused for manipulative purposes.

    Brexit has exposed the illegitimacy of this politics and its incapacity to govern. This political class simply has no idea how government works. The thicket of law and precedent operationalized thru institutions as administrative process and procedure is not what they do. What they do is PR. That is, narrative and slogans and bumperstickers.

    Explaining the EU and its consequences for British life and political economy honestly and accurately would be hard work. Organizing a systematic alteration of the legal and administrative relationship of the British economy with Europe would require articulating some set of coherent principles that could be operationalized into law and administrative procedure by an army of civil servants. I do not know that many now in Parliament would recognize a political principle, even if it were served on a porcelain plate with a luncheon.

    We now have the degenerate spectacle of Parliament first rejecting the only “deal” on offer and then prohibiting an exit without “a deal” when exit is locked in, on a fixed schedule over which Parliament has no independent discretion. The very label, “deal”, as if Brexit is a bargain picked up at a flea market, instead of a momentous constitutional shift, exposes the shallowness with which the issue has been approached by the political class, both journalistic and parliamentary.

  10. Mark Pontin

    @ Hugh

    You wrote:

    [1] “It was those damn Russkies –again.”

    Those of us with long enough memories or knowledge of recent history recall that during the 1940s-60s Southern US supporters of segregation and Jim Crow used to rant with monotonous regularity about how those insidious commies were stirring up the coloreds, who’d otherwise have been happy all the livelong day with their situation.

    Same thing here.

    To be sure, the US and Russia have been running agitprop operations within each other’s borders for the last century. That’s just the reality. That said, if less than $200,000 investment by Uncle Vlad’s team on YouTube etc. actually swung an election decisively against Hillary Clinton or the poll against Remain, then maybe either faction should have been smart enough to hire the Russians to run their campaigns in the first place — Clinton’s 2016 campaign was, IIRC, the most expensive in history to that point and she still managed to lose to a fat, bloviating TV reality/wrestling show host.

    The one answer that these people and their followers will never accept is that they’re sociopathic and narcissistic incompetents, and that the social order that so benefits them has becomes increasingly hated by the mass of their populations.

    [2] “I’ve been disappointed with Corbyn because he has let Brexit be all about Britain when it is really about the failure of the European project….”

    Come on. Corbyn’s job is to be all about Britain — and be primarily responsible to the British people and move things towards a better future for them.

    It’s not his job to crusade against the whole EU as the neoliberal clown show it is, especially when he’s already branded as the anti-semitic Marxist antichrist, and when quite a lot of Northern Europe’s urban population still believe the EU is an unmitigated benefit (and for a lot them it still may be).

    Also, frankly, what you’re asking for is probably beyond Corbyn’s abilities. This is not someone like B. Sanders who’s been smart enough to manage to make his way upwards within the US system for decades. Corbyn is a far more limited person who’s arrived where he has through sheer historical accident.

  11. Dan Lynch

    Sterling’s point about the flaws of popular referendums is valid. To make referendums workable, there should be guidelines and limits — but referendums seem to work well enough in Switzerland and Iceland. I agree with Ian — respect the referendum results.

    The problem with Labour’s position, besides being wishy-washy, is the Euro-elites have no intention of allowing the UK to exit gracefully, no matter which British politician is doing the negotiating. ANYONE WHO DOES NOT UNDERSTAND THAT IS NOT FIT TO GOVERN.

    The UK needs a Tony Benn, but instead they have an Alex Tsipras, who means well but does not seem to grasp political realities.

    It’s hard to see anything good coming out of Britain (or Europe, or the U.S.) in the near term. The EU system sucks, but it probably cannot be reformed, and any member who attempts to leave will be severely punished, so the EU will continue to wobble along. And history suggests to me that bad systems can wobble along for a long, long time.

  12. bruce wilder

    The supposed inadequacies of Corbyn as a political personality really should not be the focus of a critique of Brexit or even Labour’s difficulties in resolving Brexit policy.

    One does sense that Corbyn is personally somewhat euroskeptic, perhaps for the very good reason that EU neoliberalism forecloses any possibility of a Britain led by Labour enacting a socialist agenda.

    Hugh’s point has validity: the politics of Brexit in Britain has been an exercise in British narcissism, with much debate over what is possible that simply ignores what EU officialdom says it is willing to do. A politically realistic Brexit policy would require the British to make or even lead an alliance of dissenting countries. The obvious targets would be the EFTA countries, but especially Switzerland and the Members most closely tied to the UK economy: Netherlands as the most integrated with Britain, Sweden and Denmark as non-Euro countries with immigration concerns, Italy for its pain, Portugal as Britain’s oldest ally, Cyprus and Malta as client states and, duh! Ireland. Britain is hardly the only country chafing under EU diktat, just the only net-debtor with its own currency and control of the legal regime governing most Euro debt.

    I am not saying that such a counterfactual is a realistic might-have-been: Brexit was possible in part because Britain’s political class was so isolated from and disinterested in EU politics. UKIP survived as long as it did because it was the largest British party in Strasbourg. Britain was powerful as an outsider in EU policymaking but its politicians did not see or want careers that passed thru Brussels. And, the Tories are hardly candidates for leading anti-neoliberal reform after having practically invented neoliberalism under Thatcher.

    But, Corbyn and Labour might have better played a long game of advocating for a pro-European Brexit aimed not at moving away so much as restructuring Europe for everyone. In any case, 1 vs 27 was never going to work out for the 1. Britain needed allies. As it turned out losing Ireland practically lost the game for May; how difficult should it have been to game that out?

  13. bruce wilder

    The Swiss voted to limit immigration from the EU. How did that work out for them?

  14. Paul O

    Mark Pontin – well said. The Russia, Russia, Russia thing is just silly.

    The Labour leadership policy has been consistent and does not change every day – another canard. As said, it upholds legitimacy.

    Today, the UK National Crime Agency finds no evidence that the leave campaign broke the law. This narrative also appears to be nonsense and is falling apart.

    I voted remain but collectively we voted to leave. Parliament supported the referendum by a huge majority. At the last election the Conservative and Labour manifestos promised to respect the result – the LDs left some wriggle room though their MPs overwhelmingly supported the referendum bill (the LD manifesto of 2010 called for a referendum) .

    Leave means leave with a sensible negotiated arrangement beneficial – as much as it can be – to all parties.

    Ian – just so..

  15. Mark Pontin

    Bruce W. wrote: ‘A politically realistic Brexit policy would require the British to make or even lead an alliance of dissenting countries … I am not saying that such a counterfactual is a realistic might-have-been.’

    It really isn’t.

    I go back to the UK twice a year and the weight of the “EU good” narrative among the professional, liberal classes is suffocating. Basically, you have to make the argument in some detail that everything these people know about the EU is wrong and provide evidence, and that takes time and people won’t stand still for it. Have you ever tried telling a Hillary worshipper that she’s not “the most highly qualified person to ever run” for the presidency, but an incompetent sociopath? You can do it and if you’re prepared factually you can win the argument, and still have your interlocutor walk away from you in anger. It’s like that.

    Also to be borne in mind:

    [1] The Tories are dreadful — more dreadful than the EU in the short term — so you and I can conceptualize that there’s a near neoliberal enemy and a far neoliberal enemy and it would be good to peel off that far layer of neoliberalism, whereas many in the UK simply see the EU as a bulwark against the Tories;

    {2] Many in the UK’s major cities have benefited economically from the EU;

    [3] And finally the situation in Westminster is as you diagnose it in your earlier post when you write “this political class simply has no idea how government works … What they do is PR. That is, narrative and slogans.”

  16. Ten Bears

    Wasn’t just the Ruskies. Israel is/was just as deep in the misinformation/agitprop game as Vlad, – Mossad proudly practices War by Deception – they’ve just done a better job of covering their tracks. Again.

  17. Hugh

    BTW from the AP, the 11 member UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was illegal.

    “Supreme Court President Brenda Hale said the suspension ‘was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.’

    She said the court’s decision means Parliament was never legally suspended and is technically still sitting.”

    Also the NYT reported that Labour’s referendum plan was to negotiate a new Brexit deal. The referendum choice would be and either/or between it and staying in the EU.

  18. Hugh

    Ten Bears, the Israelis do it in the open through AIPAC. Any other country AIPAC would have to register as an agent of a foreign power, but it being Israel AIPAC is given a pass. I do not hold with this or with giving Israel a pass on being an apartheid state. An agent of a foreign government is an agent of a foreign power and apartheid is apartheid. As reported in Ha’aretz, Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, as well as Israelis of Palestinian descent are now a majority in Israel-Palestine.

    “MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List in response tweeted that, ‘Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean there is an equal number of Palestinians and Jews, and that’s nothing new. That’s why the crossroads where we presently find ourselves is clear: either two states based on 1967, or one state that is an apartheid state, or one democratic state in which everyone has the right to vote. There is no other option, and at least this simple truth has to be stated clearly.'”

  19. bruce wilder

    MP: Have you ever tried telling a Hillary worshipper that she’s not “the most highly qualified person to ever run” for the presidency, but an incompetent sociopath? You can do it and if you’re prepared factually you can win the argument, and still have your interlocutor walk away from you in anger.

    I have and that was pretty much my experience. Also, my “interlocutor” subsequently experienced amnesia.

  20. [I]f less than $200,000 investment by Uncle Vlad’s team on YouTube etc. actually swung an election decisively against Hillary Clinton or the poll against Remain, then maybe either faction should have been smart enough to hire the Russians to run their campaigns in the first place —

    Simply put, two hundred thou, two mil or two hundred mil swinging an election… is as plausible as nineteen cavemen armed only with razor blades hijacking aircraft over the most heavily guarded airspace in the history of the known universe and crashing them into Israeli owned and recently re-insured iconic structures specifically engineered, designed and constructed to withstand just such impacts and imploding them into their own footprint.

    I’m not one to poo-poo the “deep state”. They’re pretty good at this.

  21. Weirdly, I agree with Bruce on the overall point — it’s pretty much what I’ve been saying all along. Change to the EU structures (up to and including dismantlement) will come from a group of dissatisfied countries, willing to challenge the satisfied countries preferred policies. No single country will be able to move the mountain, not least because the EU exists in a much larger web of international agreements and practices that enforce an even harsher neoliberalism, whose sharp edge is blunted by the intermediary structures of Brussels/Strasbourg/Lux.

    However, that coalition of countries is not going to have the Netherlands and Italy simultaneously. Germany is painted as the big bad guy because of a weird culture of and public moralism about the meaning of money. But Germany serves as an alibi for a row of smaller countries who deeply resent the idea of fiscal expansion in Southern Europe’s favour, much more so than Germany, which will likely eventually move to save the EU project.

  22. Hugh

    Germany destroyed Greece in order to bail out some of its banks. The idea that Germany is going to save Europe is like thinking that the iceberg is going to save the Titanic or that the fire in your attic is going to save your home.

    And of course, where were the “intermediary structures of Brussels/Strasbourg/Lux,” when Germany was destroying Greece?

  23. bruce wilder


    if you drop narratives spun out of supposed cultural attitudes or national character or complex ideology, what it comes down to is a conflict between creditors and debtors. Large or small, the creditors prefer policies that secure income from the debtors on condition of precarious dependence.

    the squeeze placed on debtors is a cruel business in some respects. classically, it is necessary to prevent the debtor from finding the autonomous capacity to pay off the debt from increased productivity. a peon is created from enforced precarity and dependence as much as from the fact of debt. the EU has simply scaled up from social class to nation-state. the so-called “democratic deficit” in practice is this grinding down of the debtors that follows from an initial castration of the national state. the bankers’s coups have conspicuously taken place in Greece and Italy

    Britain, as I observed earlier, is the odd debtor with real power, the power that comes with being the bankers’ banker. for this, they invite destruction.

  24. Bruce: however, I disagree with dropping those narratives. Yes, the debtor/creditor relationship is important here. However, some of the creditors realize that they may be killing the goose that lays the golden egg — for reasons that include political culture, they’re finding it hard to turn around *before* they risk losses themselves. I would bet neither on their failure nor their success, it’s about 50%.

  25. Hugh: a lot of current left-wing antipathy towards the EU has to do a misunderstanding and slightly off caricature of what happened to Greece (which was bad). Greece’s problem is that the conditions outside the EU are strictly worse than the conditions inside the EU in the short and medium term. So if the conditions in the EU are bad, Greeks rationally calculate how much worse they will be outside, and are unwilling to pay the price of Grexit for a *possible* return to prosperity a generation or two later.

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