After the attacks in Westminster this week, Theresa May mentioned in her aftermath speech that the attacker ‘tried to silence our democracy’. Well, in fact, it does not need a terrorist act to do so, as British democracy has been silenced in much more subtle ways since the ill-advised decision of one of its most incompetent Prime Ministers in recent times to hold a referendum in order to quieten unrest in his own party, which he could never fully control, and threats from UKIP, who almost ironically on the day when the EU celebrated its 60ths birthday lost its last MP.
The referendum was thus not called based on popular demand for it or ‘the will of the people’. It was subsequently won on false propaganda and claims that the EU is behind any unpopular UK policy measure, a majority of which have in fact been purely UK government decisions – but who cares about facts these days? Maybe to conceal the fact that no clear plan for the bright future promised by the new PM exists, who herself is not democratically elected in a real sense but let’s leave this aside for the moment, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become the ultimate weapon to shut up those who want an open debate, a say, a democratic process to implement a result that should be read as an ill-advised snapshot at a particular moment in time.
Let us remember: David Cameron made a ‘promise’ to hold this referendum, at a time when he was in a coalition government with the Lib Dems, and it never looked likely that the Tory party would win the overall majority that it subsequently did win in the next general election – thus he probably never expected to be called up on his gambit. But so he was, and he probably also did not expect that his mate or non mate Boris would come down on the other side of the fence – but as with all white-male-elite networks, whatever bad blood was spilled (mainly by shooting pheasants?), it was not bad enough not to team up in a fancy New York restaurant again recently – one making money out of his political ineptitude on a speaking tour, the other on some foreign ministry engagement.
A referendum that was non-binding then became what bound MPs, whatever their personal conviction on the topic – and after all, a majority of MPs is said to be against Brexit, but of course they would not dare defy ‘the will of the people’. Wait a minute – was Britain until recently not a parliamentary democracy, where ‘the people’ delegate the deliberations of important decisions to their MPs? And now suddenly, those MPs, elected not because they campaigned for Brexit but on different grounds, are forced into a straightjacket because otherwise they would betray ‘the will of the people’? Quite a few countries in the world have regular referenda on all sorts to decisions, it is a core part of the way their democracy works – most exemplary in Switzerland for example. But not only are citizens in those countries usually well informed about what they vote on, as there is a legal obligation to provide factual information. In addition, usually some mechanisms exist to arrive at a qualified majority, so barmy ideas that may do more harm than good have little chance to become law. Not so in this referendum, where populist tactics, helped by a hapless and incompetent Labour party in opposition, carried the day – at least in two of the nations that make up the United Kingdom, but when speaking about Scotland or Northern Island the ‘will of the people’ trope is hardly ever invoked by the PM and her entourage.
Instead, the current PM does not miss an opportunity to point to the UK as the most successful political union ever – failing to remember that parts of it were built on brutal colonial oppression, unlike the EU, whatever its faults, one might add. At the Unite for Europe March in London today, one protester stated that he was born with European citizenship and how dare one wanted to take that away from him. The answer of the Tory press, as always, is how dare the protesters defy ‘the will of the people’, but that they can shout as much as they like, they will not succeed. When the House of Lord –yes, maybe something of an anachronisms in this day and age, but part of the quirky way in which British democracy has worked rather well for decades – tried to at least put some common sense into the EU bill, not least in aiming to enforce a clear role for parliament – it too in the end bowed to ‘the will of the people’.
It is astonishing and frightening to watch the speed with which old institutions unravel and bow to the dictatorship of a PM who seems to think little of parliament but regards it as rather obsolete, as a force that weakens her hand in any negotiations – negotiations based already on parameters that were not on the table in the referendum, when ‘the people spoke’. If I were British, I would be very worried. Luckily for me, as a European citizen I can walk away from the mayhem any time. What comes to mind when looking at the present moment in UK politics is a painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus or the Angel of History, and the words the philosopher Walter Benjamin write about that painting:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1973:259