Why Brexit means Brexit

As regular readers here will have noticed, over the last week I have given a lot of coverage to the debate on whether Brexit can be dodged, reversed, blocked or somehow avoided by legal and/or political means. I’ve also engaged in that debate myself in several posts.

The careful examination of this issue by experts in constitutional and international law has undoubtedly contributed to a widening sense that it might just be possible that, as John Kerry put it, Brexit can be “walked back.”

Over the weekend, a European diplomat in Brussels said: “If they treat their referendum as a non-event, we will also treat their referendum as a non-event.”

With so many doubts and questions ricocheting back and forth along with the fact that no one knows when the British government will actually formally pull the trigger on Brexit by invoking Article 50, it hasn’t been difficult to get the sense that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU might never happen — that a worse disaster than the immediate one might still be avoided.

As happens all too often, when one gets engrossed in details, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

What seems to me to be the most salient way of clarifying this issue is to pose a different question.

Suppose last Thursday the outcome of the EU referendum had been what pollsters predicted: 52% for Remain, and 48% for Leave.

Given that outcome, if the disgruntled Leave camp had then spent the following week arguing about why there should be another referendum, why the question had not been settled, and so forth, who outside their camp would have taken these protests seriously? How many legal opinions would have been crafted? How much serious discussion would have ensued?

Virtually none.

In Westminster, Brussels and throughout the financial markets, in the media and across academia, the prevailing sentiment would be that the issue had been settled, the will of the British people determined, and it was time to move forward.

Even though the real outcome of the vote looks to so many of us as an act of self-inflicted harm of historic proportions, what actually matters more than being in or out of the EU, is democracy itself.

The evidence that democracy is working as it should comes exactly at times when the political establishment gets challenged. This isn’t because there’s some inherent virtue in rocking the system. On the contrary, it’s because it is at a time such as this that those people who insist the system is rigged are demonstrably proven wrong.

Everyone’s vote was indeed counted and we should be glad of the fact.

And in the Brexit aftermath, anyone who might be thinking democracy is overrated should pay more attention to those parts of the world where ordinary people must risk their lives if they want to be heard.

The rights we too easily take for granted are rights we risk losing.

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2 thoughts on “Why Brexit means Brexit

  1. Rodney

    I think it’s quite reasonable to challenge the result. If Remain had a similar win the Leavers would have kept campaigning, heartened by the closeness of the result, certain they could convince a few more percent to leave and demanding another referendum. But the Leavers have won, it’s just that they have no plan what to do next. Article 50 is a doomsday weapon. Push it and there’s no going back.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    It’s reasonable to challenge the result — up to a point. When legal heavyweights start weighing in, coming up with strategies for avoiding Brexit, although they’re buoying a pragmatic sentiment which says there’s no need to be fatalistic, they’re also encouraging the belief that when democracy has undesirable consequences, democracy can be neutralized with work-around solutions.

    Cameron and his likely replacement, Theresa May, have exercised due caution by on the one hand not questioning the outcome of the vote but also by avoiding rushing into Article 50.

    Prior to taking that irreversible step, in my opinion the UK needs some clarity of purpose at the center of which needs to be an effort to promote national unity.

    Even though the country was fairly evenly split on the issue of EU membership, my guess (nothing more than that) is that a stronger majority would prefer the UK to remain intact than see it break apart. If there’s common purpose around that, then perhaps the Little Englanders will no longer have their outsized influence.

    The UK is more than the sum of its parts. I can’t think of any other country where the majority of the population would, if they paused to consider the fact, call themselves dual nationals (British/English, British/Scottish etc) and by that virtue be internationalists, of a kind. Even among those who might not currently take any pride in being British, I suspect fewer will now be as willing to casually toss away that identity as they were to dump the EU.

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