The general elections on December 12th are the most important in decades. The vote is first and foremost psychological: Will the British have the determination to carry out their 2016 Brexit decision, or will they back down? Is the United Kingdom still a genuinely independent state or democratic only within the EU’s limits?
When I voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in June 2016, I was confident that the majority of Brits would do the same. This was based not just on sniffing the political atmosphere, but on the EU’s own opinion polling. The EU was losing popularity almost everywhere, but only the British believed that they could face the future better outside than inside.
Swiss readers are well placed to understand this view, as most seem to share it. One can be European without being a member of the EU. One can be sceptical of the view the EU keeps Europe at peace. Like the Swiss, most of the British feel that they can prosper outside the EU, and that the costs of membership—not only financial—are too high.
We are the least ‘European’ of EU members. Trade with the EU has been diminishing in importance: we are leaving it behind, Brexit or no Brexit. Some sort of rethinking of our relationship became unavoidable. Every political party supported the 2016 ‘in/out referendum’, which all pledged would decide the matter for a generation. So although I expected difficulties, I assumed that the people’s decision would be respected. I never anticipated the shrill reaction of a large part of the ‘Remainer’ minority. I imagine that the Swiss, so strongly attached to their own democratic system, will understand my shock.
As soon as the result of the 2016 vote was announced, a large part of the political class of all parties, most of the media, the main business lobbies and the universities condemned it as the disastrous vote of an ignorant electorate deceived by demagogues. For three years they did all they could to stop Brexit, overriding accepted constitutional and legal practices and even ignoring basic democratic principles. There has been a bloodless rebellion by a significant part of the nation’s elite, apparently careless of the damage they are doing.
Political scientists have seen something like this coming for years. Across the democratic world a gap has opened up between politicians and citizens. This has gone furthest within the EU, where politicians, officials, some businesses and the cultural and academic spheres draw power, legitimacy and—let’s be frank—money from the EU. Many have spent years mastering the system and fostering contacts. Often, their social lives and future careers, even their retirement plans, focus on the EU. A new transnational establishment has been created, with little contact with large parts of their own national communities.
In most EU countries, the transnational establishment has been strong enough to defeat opposition. But in Britain, a separate establishment has re-emerged, basing its claim to authority on a national mandate. Unlike in other countries, it sits in the political mainstream and includes diverse elements, old and new, Tory and Labour, conservative and radical, toffs and plebs. Its leader has turned out to be the raffish Old Etonian Tory, Boris Johnson.
We are experiencing an angry political crisis. But the country is – to the surprise of many tourists – astonishingly normal. The issue will be resolved not by force, but by a general election on 12 December. This will decide which establishment will govern, and more importantly whether the United Kingdom is still a genuinely independent state or just an EU member state, democratic only within the EU’s limits. This is first and foremost psychological: will the British voters have the determination to carry out their 2016 decision, or will they back down?
Swiss readers may find this absurd. If Switzerland can be independent, so can Britain. For this reason, you will, I hope, see my point: Brexit is proving difficult to carry out not because political and economic independence is impossible or even difficult for a wealthy and powerful state, but because the transnational establishment does not want it to be independent. Do those predicting economic ruin and loss of global influence really believe it, or are they just trying to frighten the voters?
If they really believe it, this shows the dangers of misunderstanding your own history. There are two fundamental myths that the Remainer mindset draws on. First, that the British economy is perennially weak and is saved from ruin by EU membership. Second, that once Britain was a superpower, but now is small and insignificant. On the first myth, economically Britain remains in step with other developed economies, and it out-performs the Eurozone. On the second myth, Britain was never a superpower: it was always a medium-sized state, albeit at one time with a lot of expensive colonies. It is today what it has been for three centuries—one of the world’s half-dozen or so major states. For the first time in its peacetime history it is even Europe’s leading military power.
Democracy is a system for creating consent and solidarity by allowing all to have an equal vote. For showing people that they are listened to, so that even if they do not get their own way, they accept the outcome. That is what we have come perilously close to losing since 2016. On 12 December we have a chance to regain it, with all the risks and opportunities that democracy entails.
Robert Tombs is an emeritus professor of history at Cambridge, and the author of “The English and Their History”.