In the days of social media, words spoken by politicians years ago can often come back to haunt them. As it becomes clearer that the UK is faced with a costly, chaotic and catastrophic Tory Brexit, it is ever more important that we remember the words of none other than arch-Brexiter, David Davis:
If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
Saturday 15th September was International Day of Democracy. I often feel lucky to be living in a country that has some strong democratic traditions. In the UK we can vote for who represents us in parliaments, we have a choice of different parties to vote for, and if we are not happy with the result, we are able to freely speak about our discontent.
Ever since the 1970s, I have campaigned for a Labour government in the UK general elections. Unfortunately, more of these campaigns were unsuccessful than successful, but I never gave up my support for Labour because of this; I continued to fight for the values I believed in, and kept campaigning for Labour the next time.
I was not labelled a traitor or saboteur for not backing a Conservative government that had been democratically voted in. I was not told the country could not change its mind, no matter what the consequences. I was not threatened or intimidated if I expressed opposition to the government. The absence of such threats are the marks of a healthy democracy.
Yet, in a little over two years, this has changed. Since the referendum in 2016, which was only decided by a small margin, even minor criticisms of Brexit-at-any-cost has seen people abused, in person and online, and labelled as traitors, saboteurs and worse. Despite more facts coming to light about how damaging any form of Brexit may be, despite many referendum promises abandoned or exposed as impossible, despite all this, loud and powerful voices are claiming that democracy actually means you cannot change your mind and you must accept whatever form of Brexit they want.
Yet, when MPs voted to hold the referendum that the Conservatives had promised in their 2015 manifesto, they were told that the result would be advisory: the Referendum Act itself specified this. Almost a year after they agreed to hold it, under pressure from the hard-right in his party, David Cameron said that the result would be implemented come what may. For him, managing the Europhobes in his party trumped what parliament had actually agreed in law. He thought it wouldn’t matter – that Remain would win simply because he advocated it. After his mis-calculation and failure, he resigned as Prime Minister, and left others to sort out the mess.
From the first day of her premiership, Theresa May has continued to placate the increasingly shrill voices from the Brexiters on the right wing of her own party. ‘The will of the people’ became an oft-used mantra – but what does it actually mean when Brexit turns out to be very different from what was promised?
With each passing day, it becomes clearer and clearer that the government will not be able to deliver the vision people were promised by the Leave campaign. Any deal negotiated, or worse, no deal at all, is likely to harm our economy, create massive job losses, and harm – not help – our NHS. And surely the people, and certainly not 17.4 million of them, did not vote to be poorer!
In addition, the Leave campaign has now been found to have had a significant level of illegality, foreign interference and breaking of electoral rules.
No wonder that there is a growing clamour for a referendum on the final deal, in which voters can decide whether or not to proceed with Brexit once they can see exactly what it entails.
This is not a case of re-running the referendum until those in power get the result they want. Rather, it is a confirmation ballot on accepting the actual deal that has been negotiated, not on the promises made in the heat of a campaign. Unions ballot their members to begin industrial action, then negotiate a deal for their members and put it back to another ballot. When you put an offer in on a house, you have the right to withdraw it the survey tells you that the structure is unsound. Democracy does not mean using ‘the will of the people’ as it perhaps was in 2016 to force the whole country now into a future it did not vote for.
More and more of people are coming out in the support of a People’s Vote – rather than leaving it to the government to decide – on the actual Brexit deal. I want the public to be able to make a decision on the facts of what the actual Brexit deal is, not the fiction of what a few people said it might be. I want to help deliver a democracy in the UK that represents the interests of the many, not the few.
It is time we follow what are perhaps the only wise words ever to be uttered by David Davis, and give our democracy the opportunity to change its mind.