I Accuse... AC Grayling’s denunciation of Britain’s craven politicians
The UK's foremost philosopher and anti-Brexit campaigner issues a searing attack on those who have imperilled the national interest.
I accuse the UK government and, with a few honourable exceptions, Members of Parliament from all sides, of failing our country and failing our democracy.
Most of these charges have been laid before in these pages, but not one person, let alone the government or any MP, has rebutted them or offered an explanation for the gross dereliction they allege. Does that deafening silence amount to an admission of guilt?
Accusations invite a reply in defence. I accuse the government and MPs of failing to provide that defence, and thereby failing to offer any form of justification for taking the UK onto a path, the would-be Brexit path, which is damaging and retrogressive.
The one and only attempt at such a defence is the repeated claim that 'the people have voted to leave the EU'. This is an utterly unacceptable answer given these facts: that only 37% of the (knowingly restricted) electorate enfranchised for the 2016 referendum voted to leave the EU, and that in no mature and responsible constitutional order would such a vote be regarded as mandating a major change of national direction.
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Indeed, even had the 51.9% of votes actually cast for the Leave proposition on the day of the referendum been 51.9% of the total electorate, it would still not have been anywhere near enough to justify such a change. Such a percentage of the total electorate would have denoted a split country, and in a split country the known is the proper choice against the unknown.
But the EU referendum did not deliver a split decision: it delivered a mere 37% in favour of Leave. It is unconscionable that the government should treat this as mandating a major historical change. It does no such thing. There is no authority, no mandate, for Brexit.
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What is the answer of government and MPs to this staring fact? How do you in government, and you MPs who have done nothing so far to stop this, answer this charge, that only 37% of a restricted electorate voted to leave the EU?
I accordingly accuse both government and the majority of MPs of deceit and falsehood in claiming that 'the country has decided', that 'Britain has voted to leave', that 'the people have spoken'. I accuse the government of acting in a politically illegitimate way, and thereby already bringing disastrous consequences upon our country and its future.
I accuse MPs of failing in their constitutional duty. Parliament is sovereign: no other body in the state has sovereignty. That includes the body of people enfranchised for a referendum.
This is why Briefing Paper 07212 of June 3, 2015, told MPs that the EU referendum was advisory only, non-binding on Parliament and government. That is why the then Minister for Europe, David Lidington, repeated this, indeed stressed it, viva voce in the House of Commons in the debate on the referendum Bill later that same month, in alleging why there was no need for a super-majority requirement in the referendum. (Was this a deceit knowingly practised on the House of Commons by the minister and the government?)
It was accordingly for Parliament to debate the outcome of the referendum and decide what to do in the best interests of the country. It has never done so. Parliament has never debated the outcome of the referendum.
I accuse Parliament of a gross dereliction in this regard. I accuse it of a total failure in the exercise of its sovereignty. I accuse it of having abdicated its sovereignty, handing it to one-third of a restricted electorate who voted for a proposition that came with no plan, no roadmap, no costings, and no analysis of consequences, but supported instead by manifest distortions, falsehoods and false promises.
I accuse Parliament therefore of failing to safeguard the interests of the UK and its people. I accuse it of ineptitude in not framing the referendum correctly, and in not examining with clarity the true significance of its outcome.
Parliament has never asked itself this: '37% of those we restrictedly enfranchised for this referendum voted to leave. That is 26% of the total UK population. In the campaigns before the day of the referendum this moiety of the population was offered no plan, no roadmap, no costings, no analysis of consequences, by the Leave campaign. They were asked to buy a pig in a poke. Indeed it is fully in public knowledge that the slogans and propaganda of the Leave campaign contained much distortion and outright falsehood.
It is for us, the members of the sovereign body in our state, who must judge whether it is genuinely in the interests of the people and the future that we should act as if 37% of a deliberately restricted electorate should be treated as sovereign instead of us, taking our place and exercising our responsibility in place of us, thereby usurping our function and obliging us against our better judgment to a course of action for which there was no preparation but, instead, and sharply to the contrary, every indication of damage, disruption and loss.'
I accuse you, MPs and government, of never having asked yourselves this, of never having debated it. Not once. Why have you not? Explain. Give us your justification. I accuse you of failing in your duty as representatives to consider this, and to act with the rationality, courage and foresight that your position is supposed to require of you.
I accuse you of deliberately shirking your responsibility: deliberately. For it is not as if you have not known any of the above. Among others who approached you, I wrote to each and all of you three times making these points, the first time immediately after the referendum when, to national horror, it appeared as if you and your sense of responsibility had collapsed in the face of the referendum outcome.
I accuse you of dereliction because not only has Parliament never debated the outcome of the referendum but because you have ignored what this entails: the astonishing fact that Parliament has never voted to leave the EU. And yet you act as though there is a mandate from 100% of the UK population – not merely 100% of the electorate – for this destructive and retrogressive line of action.
I repeat this fact: parliament has never debated the outcome of the referendum, with a view to deciding what to do with the 'advice' that 37% of the restricted electorate offered. And it has never held a vote in either House of Parliament on the proposition 'that the United Kingdom resign its membership of the European Union'. I accuse MPs, with a few honourable exceptions, of the grossest dereliction in every aspect of this matter.
I accuse MPs and government of what this implies: of having allowed highly partisan interests on the further right and left wings of the political spectrum to hijack our country and its future. There is no mandate for Brexit: there is no constitutional ground for it: it is politically illegitimate: I accuse you of having stood supinely by to let it happen.
If these accusations are wrong, prove them wrong. Justify yourselves against these accusations. I challenge you to answer them. And if they cannot be answered, stop Brexit.
I accuse MPs of compounding the follies just described by not ejecting the government and its Brexit ambitions when, Theresa May having explicitly asked for 'a mandate for Brexit' in the 2017 general election, she lost her majority and had to form a coalition with a small regional party by bribing it with a huge sum of taxpayers' money.
The government never had a mandate for Brexit even before the election, and that fact was most emphatically reinforced by the 2017 general election. I accuse you of ignoring this stark fact. I accuse you of failing to act on this fact. The government's pursuit of Brexit in these circumstances is practically a form of coup: I accuse you of acting against the country's interests but not doing your constitutional duty to stop it.
I accuse you of failing our democracy because you are representatives, elected to go to Parliament to get the facts, to discuss them, to listen to argument, to make a judgment, and to act sensibly and rationally on behalf of the country: and you have utterly failed to do this.
This exposes the corrosion of our political order. For a long time now MPs have been representatives not of their constituents and country but only of their party line. You are whipped into the lobbies whatever your own judgment might be. The disgusting spectacle of MP after MP going into the lobby to vote for triggering Article 50 in March this year while saying 'This is a terrible mistake' illustrates your failure to represent the interests of the country, in supinely toeing your party line. This is unacceptable. It is a perversion of what our representative democracy is meant to be and how it is meant to work.
How can it be that you are in need of the following lesson: that ours is a representative democracy, which means that we the people send you to Parliament to get the facts, to debate, to listen to argument, to form judgments, not to be lobby fodder for a party line. If we do not approve of how you exercise your personal mandate we can vote you out.
The right we the people have to be the ultimate source of governmental authority in our state is coupled with another right: a right to responsible government.
We have this further right because without it we would not have the full exercise of all the other rights that civilise our community: the rights to freedom of speech, privacy, assembly, impartial treatment by the law and its due process, and more.
By being the servants not of us but your party line you fail us; you fail in your constitutional duty to us. In the last Parliament and in this one a majority of MPs knew and still know that continued membership of the EU is the UK's interests and that Brexit is a disastrous mistake. Your duty as MPs was then, and is now, to stop it.
Accordingly I accuse you of violating your duty as MPs and your duty to our constitution; of failing us the people and failing our future.
I accuse you of damaging and diminishing our country. You know that the deleterious effect on the economy is already significant and can only get worse. You see the looming loss of the jewel in the economy's crown, namely services and especially financial services: you see companies and expert personnel already leaving the UK for Dublin, Frankfurt and elsewhere.
You see people and businesses already leaving because the economy has been damaged and reduced and will be so to a yet greater degree in future if Brexit goes ahead. You know that in a Brexit future the public services cherished here – the NHS, education, welfare provision – will be far less affordable, if affordable at all.
You know therefore that Brexit is corroding the national consensus on what sort of country we are, tearing the fabric of our society, and pointing us in a third-world direction.
I accuse you of abetting this national act of self-harm, a self-harm of staggering proportions. I accuse you of sitting by and fiddling while our country's economy and reputation burn.
The rest of the world looks with amazement and increasing contempt at this egregious act of self-harm that the government, with the supine and feebly reluctant complicity of the majority of MPs, is perpetrating. Among many other shameful aspects of this, Parliament allows a publicly acknowledged liar and buffoon in the form of Boris Johnson to represent the country abroad: though this perhaps is fitting given the catastrophic loss of respect and influence that the government has brought upon the UK by its Brexit folly.
I accuse you of betraying our history therefore, as well as our future. Our country had a standing which enabled it to play a role in world affairs, and that in turn correlatively supported our economy and through it our society. I accuse you of trashing this reputation, of throwing away our inheritance.
I accuse you of being oblivious to the fact that the choice before the UK – a choice between being EITHER a leading partner in one of the world's three great centres of power and influence, and moreover the one that offers the best model of what the world should be: united, cooperative, progressive, sharing resources, values and aims; OR a diminished off-shore, inward-looking, xenophobic, reactionary, marginalised 'third party' state – is a no-brainer: and that you have acted as if you have no brains. I accuse you of a devastating failure of thought, responsibility, sense of purpose, and courage.
I accuse you of lack of self-understanding as to why you have allowed this folly to occur at all. Your generation of politicians has grown up in times of complacency because they have been times of relative prosperity and security. Indeed the positive aspects of these times have been the direct result of the EU's achievements, which despite its problems and work-in-progress flaws have been many.
The generation of politicians who took the UK into the EU had seen the Second World War, the ruined cities of Europe, the horrors and destruction that divisions and conflict bring. They had seen reality. They had vision therefore. How laughable it is that the Leave campaigners had no vision at all except some vague notion without plan, without analysis, without costings, but only slogans based on nostalgia and xenophobia.
These are the people who would take the UK out of the EU; the earlier generation of politicians who took us into the EU had looked truth in the face, and decided on the noble venture of constructing a great solution for the future.
I accuse you therefore of blindness, of lack of historical understanding of this hugely important point, of allowing yourselves to be pygmies trying to unpick what giants have made.
I accuse you first and last of not acting to stop this tragedy. It should be stopped straight away, to limit the damage to the economy and the UK's international standing. It is an iron inevitability that the UK will be a member of the EU in future, either by remaining now or rejoining in future: this episode of lunacy is therefore as needless as it is gross, and the longer it continues the greater the stain, the harm, and the pain, it is causing.
I accuse you the government and you MPs, saving the honourable few, of grossly failing the national interest.
I am a citizen, a voter, a taxpayer, and I demand a reply. As public servants you have an obligation to respond to me. Do not say you are answerable only to people in your constituency: too many of you standardly try this trick. You vote in the House on matters that affect the whole country: your obligation is to everyone. Answer these points one by one with rebuttals and explanations. Remember that the falsehood 'the people have decided' will not and will never do as an excuse for this travesty.
What other defences can you offer? I burn with curiosity and eagerness to know.
And if you cannot rebut these points, stop Brexit.
It is never too late to recover yourselves, to do the right thing, to salvage the honourable course. If you cannot rebut the accusations made here, stop Brexit.
If you cannot rebut these accusations and yet continue with this destructive course – well! what accusations must you then bear! – for the least of it will be damnation by the people of our country, and damnation by all history, for your terrible failure.
Professor AC Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities
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