The past few years in politics have seen many events that could be described as watersheds, not least the EU referendum result, David Cameron’s subsequent resignation, or the exit poll that showed Theresa May had miscalled the general election in 2017.
The exit poll in the last month that secured Brexit and perhaps ushered in another decade of Conservative rule will doubtless conclude many documentaries in future. But a more satisfying event for me was the quiet unwinding of the People’s Vote campaign, its communications director Tom Baldwin telling the Guardian last week, “There’s no chance of stopping Brexit now.”
I’ve been happy to tell anybody that would listen that the campaign to overturn the referendum result was a very bad idea. While progressives were carping about Brexit giving licence to all sorts of nasty bigots, many prominent politicians were openly campaigning to nullify a democratic vote because they didn’t like the result.
It’s false to say nobody cared about this. Some remainer MPs were harangued as “traitors” in the street. Boris Johnson’s calling anti-no deal legislation a “surrender bill” cast parliamentary opponents as betraying the British interest. On the milder side, the Irish podcaster Steve Byrne called the People’s Vote campaign “a bit off”.
Yet many others celebrated the people trying to block Brexit. Journalists applauded the formation of the often renamed Independent Group from a bloc of dissatisfied Labour and Conservative MPs. Podcasts and newspapers were formed, and hundreds of thousands marched to stop Brexit happening.
There is nothing innately malign in people organising in these ways to campaign for something. But what these people were campaigning for was the erasure of a democratic vote with a clear if narrow verdict. They were campaigning for democracy to be ignored.
Various sophistries were available to justify this. Polling has largely indicated that if Brits were again asked about EU membership we would vote remain (usual health warnings about polls aside). Vote Leave broke some rules during the election, and wrote some dubious things on a coach. And perhaps, some argued, Britons should never have been asked in the first place.
That the referendum was flawed is not in question, but the fact remains it was authorised by Parliament and the sitting government, and politicians agreed the result would be implemented. The gripes about overspending or the power of internet advertising are also frivolous.
More fundamentally, the view that voters are incapable of choosing whether to be governed by the EU is more disgraceful than anything leavers have been accused of. It is a political philosophy that refuses to let people run their own lives.
Now those bastards have lost. They’ve lost because a new parliamentary majority has taken back control of politics, with Johnson at its head. The leverage afforded to the anti-democrats by the hung parliament formed in 2017 is no more. These people will have to abide by the wishes of most voters.
At the same time the Tiggers have been flung from Parliament, with all the defecting MPs losing the seats they were contesting on election night. Many of them had continually refused by-elections after their defections, further burnishing their anti-democratic credentials.
Not all these people were bad politicians, and probably none were bad people. But they were chasing bad principles. For all the problems with Johnson, he promised to implement what people voted for. Elites have increasingly denigrated such behaviour as populism, but mostly they just dislike being outvoted.
There is much to be said about checks against majority rule, and the British system would benefit from constraining the elective dictatorship that a prime minister can enjoy with a hefty House of Commons majority. Yet the question presented to voters in the EU membership referendum was much like any election: who do you want to govern you?
It was and is the opinion of some people that Britons have no right to govern themselves without intervention from the EU. That is the only way you can explain the behaviour of some extreme remainers over the past few years. Whatever else this government brings, the obliteration of this tendency is a good thing for democracy.