When the United Kingdom exits the European Union late on Friday, Brexit will be hailed as a victory for British democracy. Three times Britons voted to leave the EU and “take back control”: in June 2016, when the Leave campaign won at the EU referendum; in the general election the following June, when the vast majority of voters cast ballots for parties promising to fulfill the referendum will of the people (even though the Conservative party itself only achieved a minority government); and finally in December 2019 — the second general election in as many years — after months and months of Remainer parliamentary obstruction, Britons overwhelming elected Boris Johnson on the pledge to “get Brexit done.” Third time’s the charm.
But is this really a victory for democracy? Yes, on the face of it, if by democracy you mean one person, one vote. On the other hand, Britons were subjected, figuratively and literally, to months of their elected representatives in the House of Commons hell-bent on frustrating that self-same will, all in the name of parliamentary democracy.
Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 EST - Details) The prime minister and no less than Elizabeth II, fulfilling their legitimate constitutional powers to prorogue Parliament, were vetoed by an unaccountable UK Supreme Court, “miraculously” imbued with the ability to augur that the Head of State and her First Minister were motivated by malevolent intent against democracy. Thus vetoed, Boris Johnson was forced to return to the Commons, cap in hand, to the repellent glee of Remainers. Brexiteers were rightfully outraged, while the establishment was unconvincingly nonplussed. They hear “the fury in your words, but not your words,” to summon up Shakespeare.
What is it about democracy that Brexiteers dislike? Most would never put the question so bluntly and, if queried, would proclaim themselves the most proud and patriotic democrats in all of England. Except … Why do politicians and more perniciously, “public” servants, put their interests above those whom they have sworn to serve?
Were justification required, we could put the blame on Edmund Burke, who infamously told his Bristol electors that MPs “owe you, not his industry only, but his judgment.” Furthermore, “he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion,” Burke protested.
Burke’s political nostrum, however, had its limits even in his own day, let alone in ours. In truth, we need go no further than to admit that public officials are usually no more “public-spirited” than the general run of the populace. Perhaps even less so.