It is a puzzlement whether the cottage industry of international election observers populating the American commentariat really understand what is at stake in the upcoming British parliamentary election. It should be more widely discussed than it is. And analyses should focus on what is motivating voters, rather than whether the Tories or Labor are more likely, according to the polls, to come out ahead.
In reality, the future of representative democracy may be on the line, at least as far as the idea the people deserve to get what they voted for. It has been more than three years since 51.9 percent of those participating in a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union took the position it should not. Yet, after three different prime ministers and one general election, the U.K. is still in the EU.
The why is easy to understand. The elites, including what has proved to be a majority of Parliament, think the people made the wrong decision and have done all they can to block Brexit from moving forward. But is that really appropriate?
Boris Johnson, the current prime minister, is a confirmed Brexiteer. He joined and later resigned from the government of his immediate predecessor when it became clear she had bollixed up the whole business. And he has pushed for this election in order to replace the anti-Brexit members of his own party with those who support his position and will vote with him to withdraw from Europe.
This is not a new issue. It has perplexed governments going back to Margaret Thatcher’s. Indeed, there are those who still believe her opposition to Britain joining the EU was the principal reason members of her Cabinet eventually plotted her overthrow. But the British elites—leaders in the permanent government, as well as the financial community, media, academia and foreign policy establishment—wanted in and, for their sins, they got their way.
The people were a different matter. Until the June 2016 referendum, it was conventional wisdom that it was only the cranky, fringe elements in U.K. politics who objected to EU membership on the grounds that British sovereignty was being impinged upon and for other reasons, those who populate the corridors of power found silly or unworthy of attention.
The referendum smashed that conception. To the shock of all the elites, a majority of the country ratified the “U.K. out the EU” position, believing they were setting out on a course to regain the nation’s independence. Yet the people’s choice has been thwarted, time and again.
First came the effort to discredit the vote, blaming it on anti-immigrant racism and fears of job loss in areas already economically depressed. That proved to be untrue. A survey of 12,369 voters in the United Kingdom conducted the day of the referendum found the No. 1 issue propelling people to vote to leave was their belief that the U.K. should remain a self-governing entity not responsible to some supranational body writing rules and regulations about the economy and other matters. Once that failed, the machinations began in Parliament and elsewhere to prevent the withdrawal agreement from ever being approved, which brings things to where they are now.
The election analysts who are part of America’s own elites have been strangely silent about all this. It may they are distracted by the ongoing congressional foofaraw over President Donald Trump’s interaction with the president of Ukraine to notice the global significance of events in the U.K. It’s not wrong to point out the similarities between Johnson’s effort to get a deal done and Trump’s effort to bring the American government to heel. Here, too, there seems to be considerable confusion, as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman inadvertently confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee considering the impeachment of the president, about who makes policy and just who’s in charge.
In the end, if it is affirmed the people are in charge and that they exercise their authority by delegating it to their elected representatives, up to and including the president of the United States, then things will work out fine. The American writer H.L. Mencken, a friend reminds, once described democracy as being “the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Here in the U.S. and in Britain, there are those with power who believe it’s their job to keep the people from making what they regard as a mistake. If the battle over Brexit, which is one of those “mistakes,” goes the way they want, then all the small “d” democrats around the world have some serious soul-searching to do before we can regain the power we’ve apparently lost.