This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.
Since the 2016 referendum, the Establishment has connived to thwart the will of the majority who backed Brexit — and, argues Rod Liddle, its chicanery is about to succeed
At about five o’clock in the morning of June 24, 2016, I was woken by a woman shrieking excitedly in my ear: “We’ve done it, we’ve done it!” Done what? I wondered dimly, dragging myself from a disquieting dream in which giant mechanical Michael Goves were terrorising the country, stamping people to death and firing bolts of electricity out of their rusted metal arms. Done what? Had sex? Surely not.
“We’ve won!” The voice came again. “We’re leaving the European Union!” I immediately sat upright. Christ! I joined my wife downstairs, where she’d been all night watching the referendum special on the BBC. As soon as I saw David Dimbleby’s face I knew she wasn’t lying: he looked aghast. A pall of appalled outrage hung over the entire TV studio.
I made some coffee for us both and sat down in a state of mild euphoria for a while, until my wife said, shrugging her shoulders: “They won’t let it happen.”
I looked back at the TV screen, at the ranks of terribly transgressed BBC employees, at the utterly forlorn main party politicians giving their verdicts and already saying “we must respect the result of the referendum, but . . .” And I nodded. “No, they won’t let it happen.”
Later that day I put up a one-line post on my Facebook page. “Betcha we don’t leave.” Oh, yes. The sad sweet pleasure of being proved right.
Part of me still clung to a faint hope that a clear majority verdict on the part of the British people would be honoured and acted upon, because that would be the right, democratic, thing to do. The politicians were mandated to extricate ourselves from the EU — not bits of it, all of it. How, then, would they be able to renege on that mandate?
I could envisage very clearly that they would renege upon it, but the question was how.
What I didn’t foresee at the time, that glad bright morning when everything seemed rather good with the world: the process, the narrative, the chicanery, the bare-faced lies, the subversion of direct democracy by every possible unaccountable institution, the welter of propaganda from our neutral broadcasters, the staggering political ineptitude, the lack of will, the duplicity, the betrayal.
Because that is what it is, regardless of whether you are a leaver or remainer. A grotesque and unprecedented betrayal of the country by our parliament, a betrayal of that majority which voted in good faith, which trusted in democracy and perhaps never will do so again. The people voted to leave the European Union. We will not be leaving the European Union.
At the very best we will be staying in it to all intents and purposes, except without voting rights. Headed towards this anomaly, some kind of “deal” that makes us worse off than if we’d merely remained EU members. The maths should have made it evident on that day, three years ago. Yes, the House of Commons was mandated to deliver Brexit. But it was more than six to one in favour of remain. Not only that, but of the parties represented in the House of Commons, only one — the tiny Democratic Unionist Party — and a lone ’kipper, Douglas Carswell, were in favour of Brexit.
The others were all, by a majority — a large majority in most cases — against. The Conservatives, Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru. The same was true of the House of Lords and, still more crucially so, the rest of our liberal Establishment — the people with the power, the influence, the money.
But it was still a question of: how? The result was straightforward enough. Every region of England and Wales, except for London, voted to leave. How could the Establishment work its way into a position where it could offer the pretence of delivering that mandate while actually not doing so? Through what tortuous manoeuvrings would it need to turn?
It began with a very swift change to the narrative. Within a day of the victory politicians and commentators were talking about a “hard Brexit” and a “soft Brexit”, whereas hitherto we had simply been talking about “Brexit”. At first, a “hard Brexit” was leaving with no deal at all — although that changed as time progressed. A “soft Brexit”, it became quickly apparent, would not be much of a Brexit at all and was utterly dependent upon the good will — ha — of the EU.
Another narrative, however, stayed basically the same, but increased in intensity, in fury. This had been seemingly the main plank of the remainer argument — that those who were in favour of leaving were racists and xenophobes. The remainers conflated a distaste for the EU among leavers with a distaste for Europe, and a worry about unrestricted immigration with a dislike of foreigners — a woeful misrepresentation of the majority of the country.
They were also stupid, these leavers — uneducated thickos. They were not wealth creators, they did not have degrees. They lived in awful places — Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Boston, Clacton and so on. They were underachievers.
This trope played its part in allowing the MPs to renege upon the decision of the electorate. The allegations that leave voters were all racists enabled MPs, and Labour MPs in particular, to feel better about themselves for gainsaying the democratic will of the people — because the “people” were bad. And if they were not bad, just dense.
This latter trope was of huge importance to the Establishment as, within days of the referendum, the BBC and other news organisations scrabbled around trying to find people who had voted leave but now regretted the decision because they hadn’t “understood properly what it meant”. (They never tried to find people who had changed their minds in the other direction, although there were plenty.)
Because these thick *snip*s hadn’t understood what was really meant by Brexit, perhaps the kindest thing to do would be to let them have the vote again, so that they can get it right? A confirmatory vote, if you will. Or, hilariously, a “People’s Vote” — because the first one was won by troglodytes, not people.
And as the prime minister struggled through her witless negotiations with the EU, so this fervour for a people’s vote grew — because the thickos hadn’t understood how complex it all was, had they? And look — see how complex it is now, how labyrinthine? You hadn’t bargained for this, had you? And yet all the way along it was not Brexit that was the problem but the government’s handling of Brexit. But this stereotype, of the decrepit moron leave voter, was crucial to the cause of not delivering Brexit. They knew not what they had done, these poor deluded *snip*s. So another vote was needed, or maybe no vote — just stop the process in its tracks.
Labour MPs could convince themselves that in opposing Brexit they were doing the best for their constituencies, despite what their constituencies actually had to say about the business. Tory MPs did the same. And so parliament began to follow the narrative of the soft Brexit, the nice Brexit, the Brexit that wasn’t Brexit at all, something that might be offered as a sop to the idiots but that actually kept us in the EU in all but name.
Oh, and the elderly. It was elderly people who voted leave. Destroying the future of the younger generation. And their votes shouldn’t really count because they’ll all be dead soon — a familiar theme among that extremist tranche of absolutist remainers.
Never have so many blameless people in this country been held in such contempt, or been subject to such vilification, by an elite. A transgressed elite. Another narrative. The vote was invalid. It was not “binding” — despite the promise of the then prime minister, David Cameron, that it would indeed be binding and the absence on the polling cards anywhere of the word “advisory”. Sheer chicanery. Only 52% voted leave — a proper vote would have insisted upon a 60–40 majority. Would it? Why would it?
Those were the rules — a simple majority sufficed. Everybody knew that when they went to the polls, remainers and leavers alike. A football match won one-nil has still been won — the opposition does not declare that it’s not a win at all because the score wasn’t five-nil. The majority of people in the UK didn’t vote leave — another wholly asinine objection from that rump of infuriated remainers. No, indeed, they didn’t. But we have a habit, in this country, and in most democracies, of counting up the votes of people who have voted — not the ones who didn’t. An odd arrangement, but there we are.
Or the vote was invalid because the leave campaign — always the leave campaign, never the remainers — told fibs. Well, heaven forfend. If we nullified elections every time a politician told a porkie, we wouldn’t have a democracy at all. But all this epic, disingenuous, non-sequitur shit, this flailing around in pursuit of a bunch of Aunt Sally arguments, helped to grease the wheels of the remain lobby and assuaged the MPs in their confected anguish over not, actually, respecting the vote at all.
Brexit was defeated — in part by people who always wanted it defeated and did not really care a jot about the aspirations of those who voted leave. But partly also by sheer staggering ineptitude. Not only the ineptitude of the prime minister but also of those who genuinely believed in Brexit and wished — or seemed to wish — to make it happen.
We are left in a kind of limbo. Theresa May tried three times to get her deal through parliament and failed on each occasion. Her deal did not actually involve leaving the EU in a meaningful sense. She is now about to go. But the same problem faces the incoming prime minister, that the mathematics of the House of Commons will not allow a no-deal exit from the EU (a point that has already been made very clear by MPs) and, given the make-up of the House of Commons, it is more likely to insist upon a deal that is even less effective at extricating ourselves from the clutches of the EU: permanent membership of the customs union, for example.
And always looming is the prospect of a second vote — but this time gerrymandered so we get it right. A choice between a disastrous deal and remaining, for example. The Establishment will not make the same mistake again.
So if Boris moves to No 10 the result will be exactly the same. Here’s how Martin Howe QC, chairman of Lawyers for Britain, saw it:
“If the deal goes through, the next day we will not have left the EU in anything but name. For at least 21 months of ‘transition’ — extendable up to four years — we will have to obey the EU’s laws and rules, and be subject to the Commission and the European Court of Justice as now. The big difference is that we will no longer have a vote or voice in the EU institutions. So no vote or veto against EU law changes which damage the City, or against the Commission’s use of state aid controls to suppress our competitiveness.”
So it’s that, or something worse, or nothing. Betcha we don’t leave. It was said with sadness back then in June 2016. It’s said today with real anger.
Copyright Rod Liddle 2019. Extracted from The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle to be published by Constable on July 16 at £14.99