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Turkey, Brexit and the danger of referendums: A recipe for division

PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Brexit raises more and more questions for its backers. Yet they still have no answers

What are Brexiters going to make of the Turkish referendum? Turkey has turned itself into a dictatorship on the basis of a miniscule referendum majority – a majority of votes cast on the day, note, not of the electorate as a whole.

If any referendum proved the point that a major constitutional change cannot be legitimate unless based at very least on a majority of the electorate, this is it. And what does it tell us by comparison? It tells us, emphatically and unequivocally, as if by the clearest of mirror reflections, that the Leave vote by 37% of the (restricted) electorate in the EU referendum is nowhere near a legitimate basis for leaving the EU.

Will pro-Brexit politicians defend the Erdogan assumption of dictatorship? Or will they have the shamelessness to say that he does not have a mandate, while maintaining that they themselves (on a yet smaller percentage of the electorate!) nevertheless do? It will be interesting to see how they handle the dilemma Erdogan poses them: having things both ways – the usual political desire – will be tricky this time round.

Like the Brexit referendum, Turkey’s referendum is a recipe for division and instability. Half of Turkey’s voters are now targets of an Erdogan dictatorship under the State of Emergency (under the terms of which the referendum was held) that he has used to imprison opponents and silence dissent since the failed coup. Like the hapless Theresa May, Turkey’s now outgoing Prime Minister Binali Y?ld?r?m mouths the mantra that ‘the people have spoken and the country is united’, feebly hoping to make true what is palpably false, on both counts, by saying it loudly enough or often enough: pure Orwell (and Goebbels).

In asserting the obvious and risible falsehood that ‘the UK is uniting behind Brexit’ in the hope of making it seem true, May’s own Orwellian endeavours amount to whistling in the wind. The only unity resulting from the EU referendum is the unity among Remainers, who have a clear idea of what they want and why, because the proof – the tremendous benefits of EU membership – is available for all to see. Leavers are not united; they do not agree among themselves about what they mean or want by Brexit: because no-one knows this, not even the government. Moreover the UK is visibly fragmenting before our eyes as a result of the referendum, with Scotland and Northern Ireland on paths towards leaving the UK and the Welsh wishing they could too. Why should they be dragged out of the EU against their will, when they know so well, because they have benefitted so much by, the advantages of EU membership?

Thus the last thing the EU referendum has created is unity – except among Remainers themselves: which, by the way, is why Brexit will be defeated. Instead of national unity the EU referendum has created bitterness, uncertainty, an accelerating economic downturn (and no Brexit has actually happened yet! but the City of London is starting to drain away, person by person), with upsurges of xenophobia and racism, and the departure already occurring of skilled and committed fellow Europeans who contribute to our economy, our NHS, our universities and our scientific research and development. The mere prospect of Brexit is an unfolding disaster, a slow-motion train-wreck, and what is so utterly astonishing is that the Brexit cabal in government is pressing on anyway, without a mandate, on the basis of a multiply illegitimate referendum – multiply illegitimate because of the restricted franchise, the lack of a supermajority bar, the appalling lies and false promises of the Leave campaign, and the culpable and provable distortions of the tabloid press.

Why? Why in the face of the stark evidence that Brexit is a very stupid idea and with ever-increasing obviousness day by day proving to be so, are May and the others pressing on?

Partly it is sheer embarrassment; all of May, Johnson and Davis performed a volte face from being Remainers to being ardent gung-ho Leavers and ate now faced with the impossibility and wreckage of the mess that the referendum has caused. Thus it is sheer embarrassment at the prospect of having to confess that they got it wrong, do not know what to do, and are stuck in an impossible situation.

Partly it is the rabbit-in-the-headlights inability to put the referendum into the context of a Parliamentary democracy, in which it is Parliament that is sovereign, charged with the responsibility for acting in the country’s best interests, and instead fetishing the same sort of first-past-the-post result that (with equal illegitimacy, let us acknowledge) got them their Parliamentary seats.

Either they seriously think that a vote by 37% of the electorate on a major constitutional issue is an adamantine and irresistible mandate, in which case they are stupid, or they are running a coup to steal the country out of the EU by means of an electoral sleight of hand, in which case they are crooked. Either way they should go.

And this last point brings us to the nub. In his novel The Ministry of Fear Graham Greene observes that convention often overrides fear. For example, a guest at a cocktail party notices that a fire is smouldering in the corner of the room, but is reluctant to make a fuss and therefore does not warn everyone but looks around anxiously for the host so that he can tell him quietly of what he has seen. Translate this more generally: not just social convention but party loyalty, tribal affiliation to a political tradition, reluctance to stand out from the crowd in case one makes a fool of oneself, or gets into trouble for it – this is what is making the majority of our MPs reluctant to break ranks with an obviously misguided government and (in the case of the now utterly useless Labour opposition under Corbyn) party leadership, and to align with others of any and all parties who see that we are being driven over a cliff.

Our MPs can save us at a single stroke, right now, preventing yet further accumulation of damage to our economy, our future and our reputation as a (once?) major world state, if they were to rise up, combine as a movement for national salvation, sack this administration, and empanel a government to extricate us from this disaster.

Who will do it? Who in Parliament today has the guts, the truth, the nobility, to stand up and call for his or her colleagues on all sides of Parliament to stop this madness right now?

If another referendum is called on the outcome of Brexit negotiations, it has to be a proper constitutional affair, with a supermajority requirement and enfranchisement of all who are materially affected – 16 and 17 year olds, EU citizens resident in the UK, and all British citizens everywhere (what a scandal – three different types of profound scandal – that these three constituencies, the most relevant of all constituencies, were deliberately excluded from the 2016 referendum!)

The damage being caused by the mere prospect of Brexit has gone on long enough. All the signs are clear. Parliament has the right and the duty to stop it. And if it does, restoring the status quo, the UK will continue to have the best and most advantageous deal as an EU member of any EU state. If we do not stop Brexit now by this means, it will be stopped by other means – watch this space: plenty of avenues remain open – and if by any chance it is not stopped, the UK will rejoin the EU soon thereafter – but note! not on these current terms, but on the same terms as all other members.

This latter thought does not trouble me, but ardent Brexiters might like to consider the following truth and its implications: the future of the UK, come what may or May, is in the EU. I repeat: the future of the UK is in the EU, sooner or later. Either it is in the EU on our current membership terms, or it will be on the same terms as our fellow member states. Ponder that, Brexiters, in the intervals between pondering the mess you are currently making of our country.

Turkey is heading for turmoil. Brexit is creating turmoil. The Leave trolls on Twitter (oddly enough, they never seem to have an argument or a fact at their command, only foul-mouthed imprecations) threaten turmoil if they do not get their Brexit.

Well: 26% of the UK population voted Leave, many of them among the older generation; the rest of us have nothing to fear. We will be able to persuade them to be calm and to continue their democratic right to argue for an alternative, though by better and more honest means than heretofore we hope. For there will be far less turmoil in our country by ditching Brexit than by continuing with it: that is another sober truth which Brexiters would do well to ponder too.

Professor AC Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities

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