Invoke Article 50 Now: Depoliticising Brexit

1 Sep

Two months after the referendum, there seems to be little progress towards enacting the majority verdict that the UK should leave the EU. Indeed, some Remainers, like Labour leadership contender Owen Smith, are openly arguing that parliament should block Brexit or call another referendum. Suspicious Leave supporters see elites and technocrats conspiring to overturn the result, and are therefore demanding ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’. A demonstration is planned for 5 September, when Parliament will debate a massive petition demanding a re-run of the referendum.

At TCM, we have supported leaving the EU but some of us have also rejected the insistence on immediately invoking Article 50. This has drawn criticism from some Leave supporters, including one of our own contributors. Here we seek to clarify further why the focus on Article 50 is mistaken.

‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ is a simple, clear demand with apparent democratic content: the people mandated their representatives to leave the EU and doing so requires invoking Article 50 (unless Britain leaves unilaterally, breaking its international treaty obligations).

However, it’s also a demand that evades the key problem facing anyone wanting to ensure that the democratic moment of the referendum is meaningfully realised. The primary obstacle to this is not the machinations of disgruntled Remainer academics, lawyers and New Labour MPs. It is the Leave campaign’s lack of political clarity and the disarray of the Tory ministers tasked with implementing Brexit.. The anti-democratic Remainers will only get their chance if those responsible for Brexit drop the ball.

Despite being a Remainer, Teresa May cannot block Brexit because that would reopen the Conservative Party’s long-running civil war over Europe and defy the popular mandate to leave the EU, which was supported by 60% of Tory voters. This would end her career, and that’s why she insists that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. However, as we have argued, what Brexit means in practice is unclear, because the Leave campaign failed miserably to articulate a clear post-EU vision for Britain. Two months later, the Cabinet’s ‘Three Brexiteers’ (Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox) have barely managed to meet, let alone begin to rectify this. Instead they have indulged in pathetic squabbling over who gets how many civil servants.

This is not simply a narrow question of the Eurosceptics’ dubious competence or personal commitments. It reflects a deeper political problem. Tory Euroscepticism rejects European forms of government – with much inaccurate frothing about ‘Brussels’ supranationalism’ – in the name of Westminster traditions and parliamentary sovereignty. Since they have rarely given much thought to what sovereignty would actually be used for, beyond vague blather about free markets, they have little sense of what to do next. Moreover, the Leave vote expressed a much wider disenchantment with politics, including Westminster and, arguably, the free-marketeering that has left many Leave voters behind. Tory Eurosceptics’ prevarication reflects the inadequacy of their own substantive vision, and perhaps also a recognition that the limited ‘restoration’ they desire cannot begin to satisfy the disgruntled masses.

If Article 50 were invoked quickly, this might all be covered up. Sheltered by secret EU negotiations, politicians and civil servants could do a dirty deal with EU officials. In the absence of any alternative vision, this would most likely maintain most existing rules and regulations: ‘Brexit in name only’. This outcome would satisfy no-one.

The delay in invoking Article 50, then, is a necessary part of the democratic process. It may be unimpressive, but that reflects the state of Britain’s democracy. Parliament asked the electorate for instructions, and it got them: leave the EU. But since no-one put to the electorate any clear plans as to what that would involve, our elected representatives must now work out what Brexit will mean in practice.

This is hard because of the deeper crisis of representative politics. At TCM we have argued that the EU is a product of the decline of political representation within European states. As European governments’ political relationships with their constituents weakened, they looked to each other for the authority that they can no longer find at home. That decline of national, representative politics is reflected in both the political disenchantment of Leave voters, and the post-referendum disarray and dissolution of Britain’s entire political class – not merely the Eurosceptics. Nobody now seems to be sure how to pick up the extraordinary popular mandate created by the referendum and to politicize it by developing specific proposals on immigration, citizenship, trade, security and so on. That includes those who merely call for Article 50 to be invoked, without offering anything more.

It might be different if the slogan ‘Invoke Article 50’ were accompanied by ‘and stay in the single market’, or ‘and negotiate a trade deal that includes (or excludes) free movement of people’ – or whatever. Such concrete political positions might resolve the impasse, and might help to revive democratic politics by offering the British and the wider European public some political direction. But demanding that Article 50 be invoked without offering that direction simply leaves the task to others.

The question of the free movement of people, for example, is not some boring technical detail that can be sorted out by experts. It is a highly charged political issue, central to both the referendum campaign and wider European politics. It will be a key aspect of Brexit negotiations. ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ says nothing about what Britain’s approach should be; it merely evades the question – and every other issue of substance.

It is for this reason that ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ is a populist demand. It rhetorically invokes the people’s will and demands that the political class act upon it. But by failing to offer substantive direction, the decrepit, technocratic political class is left free to determine what actually happens in practice. The demand appears radically democratic in form but, by avoiding difficult and unresolved questions, it is depoliticizing in content.

No doubt, formulating concrete proposals is hard. Over the past 30 years, as domestic political contestation has been hollowed out across Europe, we have lost the habit of generating transformational political programmes. Called upon now to do so, our political class trembles at the threshold. Pushing them through the door by invoking Article 50 would not suddenly resolve their lack of concrete ideas. It would merely encourage them to grope for the easiest option of ‘Brexit in name only’. It is more important, then, to articulate concrete demands and insist that our representatives act on these. To their credit, some groups have been trying to do this. The Leave Alliance has formulated an incredibly detailed plan for ‘Flexcit’, while the campaign group 38 Degrees has crowd-sourced a concrete set of demands to shape the Brexit negotiations. Whatever their limitations, they are at least engaged in the hard task of working out what, substantively, should come next. Article 50 campaigners are not. Their slogan is a bold sounding but essentially risk-free demand. When Article 50 is invoked, which will most likely happen, given the government’s political stance, these campaigners can claim a victory and move on. If the Brexiteers screw it up and Article 50 is never invoked, they can say, ‘we told you so’. It’s a cheap way of making some friends among those sympathetic to democracy, but it diverts attention from the true obstacles to reviving democracy.

Peter Ramsay, Philip Cunliffe, Nicholas Frayn and Lee Jones



9 Responses to “Invoke Article 50 Now: Depoliticising Brexit”

  1. James Heartfield September 1, 2016 at 12:06 pm #

    That’s even worse than the last article. The idea that you should delay Brexit until you append what policies Parliament should follow outside of the EU is a fatal misunderstanding of the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty means self-government. But your formula would be ‘self-government to do x’. A self-governing party must be free to do x or y or whatever, or it is not self-governing.
    The referendum was v clear. The accompanying statement from the govt, issued to each household, says that the govt will invoke article fifty straight away. Not doing so removes the issue from political debate and makes it into a bureaucratic one.

    • James Aber September 1, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      I don’t really follow this comment…

      Isn’t TCM saying there should be open democratic political debate about how the UK leaves the EU?

      Not just what the UK government may decide to get up to one day in the future once it’s out of the EU?

      How Britain Brexits isn’t straightforward. Won’t it have to include some pretty big political decisions – for example, off the top of my head, how open or closed the UK’s borders would be, which is a fairly big political issue?

      Standing back and declining to take part in debates about such a massive political process seems a bit of a massive democratic surrender – leaving it all in the hands of the Tory government and the bureaucrats of Whitehall and Brussels to sort out under Article 50.

      The comment claims that TCM’s demand that Brexit be subject not to bureaucratic but to political debate ‘removes the issue from political debate and makes it into a bureaucratic one.’ That seems like chiasmus, but not dialectic, and doesn’t make sense to me…

      Did the government leaflet promise to invoke Article 50 straight away?

      I read it ages back, but have forgotten, so I tried to find it online. I found this:

      It certainly says ‘The government will implement what you decide’, but I can’t find ‘straight away’. But maybe I’m looking at the wrong leaflet, or at the wrong bit of the right leaflet. But if I am mistaken there, I don’t think one slightly vague promise (How straight away is ‘straight away’? It can’t mean the absolute second the results are in…) in one leaflet swings the whole argument about whether triggering Article 50 straight away is populist or sovereign or democratic or sovereign…

      As much as bitter doomed Remainers like Owen Smith may whinge, it does really look like the government is heading to implement Brexit in one form or another.

      The real question is what kind of Brexit it will be – and can the voters get involved in deciding what kind!

  2. Richard Ings September 1, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

    Once again, to echo James Heartfield, you are wrong. The demand to invoke Article 50 is the polar opposite of what you are suggesting. It is an attempt to keep the issue in the political arena and stop it being buried it in paperwork. Getting civil servants to huddle together to work out the details while carefully considering interesting petitions from self-appointed representatives of The Galvanised Working Class while not keeping it politicised (i.e. sticking to what they were asked to do, that is invoke Article 50) is inviting those in power to turn it into the very thing you want to fight against – the managerialisation and depoliticisation of politics.

    You misunderstand what political leadership is about – keeping the issue of “so why hasn’t Article 50 been invoked?” a political rather than a technical issue (“oh well we still need to have a meeting with the Belgian Finance Minister”) is about preventing those who were against it from gaining the upper hand (or in many ways keeping it – don’t be so naive as to take government statements about respecting the referendum result at their word) and in effect sucking the life out of the positive vote for independence.

    Your fantasy of little internet-based soviets all chipping in to the process and making sure we not only get Brexit but some kind of working class self-government in Britain is just that – a fantasy. Start with trying to keep the impetus for taking back control and the idea that democracy means something alive by challenging those who say “not now… but soon! We just need to have a quick get-together with the Austrian Immigration Minister”. People then might begin to have the sense that it is possible to change other aspects of social and political life Theresa May disagrees with.

    “What do we want?” “Brexit!” “When do we want it?” “Well it’s not so much a question of when but making sure we have enough input into how Brexit turns out which could take a while” (crowd shrugs, looks at its feet, begins to wander off in the direction of the pub)

    • James Aber September 1, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

      But if all you ask for is ‘Article 50!’ and nothing besides, what happens when Theresa May triggers Article 50 – as it seems likely she will?

      You will be empty handed.

      Your only demand will have been nicked by Theresa May.

      You didn’t make any other demands (and – indeed – went around the internet discouraging other people from demanding anything else), so you won’t have much to chip in with during the Brexit process when Brexit starts going ways you don’t like.

      Your precious pet, Article 50, will have deserted you and will be purring away under the hands of Tory ministers and various bureaucratic negotiators in secretive Brussels meeting rooms that you’re not allowed into.

    • Lee Jones (@DrLeeJones) September 1, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

      We have already explained at length, in previous posts, why triggering Article 50 converts the process into a secretive and technocratic one. We would be happy to be proven wrong, but so far no one has even tried to so.

      Instead you are deliberately caricaturing our argument. TCM has nowhere argued that “internet based Soviets” can bring about working-class government in Britain – nor anything remotely like it.

      Ultimately your stance conveys contempt for “the crowd”. You imply that the process of deliberation and representation on what Brexit means in substantive terms (which is what we are actually proposing, as we make patently clear – not talks with the Belgian finance minister or whoever) is too complicated and boring. All a crowd will respond to is simplistic, populist slogans like yours. Well – good luck rebuilding real democracy, rather than a merging of populism and technocracy, with an approach like that.

  3. Rosie Cuckston September 10, 2016 at 5:44 pm #

    The reason why technocracy and populism are opposed is because “we know best” is pitched strongly against “we the people.” “Votes for women” was a populist cry. Even though some rich women were in it for themselves the idea that suffrage should be universal took hold.

    The current moment is one where the idea of universal suffrage and democracy is also threatened. Threatened by rich and powerful people trying to overturn the referendum or undermine it as well as extensive questioning of which people should get to vote (not the elderly, not the uneducated, and so on). The point is to first emphasise “we the people”. The campaign to trigger article 50 is that emphasis. It drawers attention to the universal benefit of being in a democracy and to all those who would like to see it taken away outright or in some way restricted.

    Yes, there is a risk that this results in a hunkering down by elites, scared that out of the void the people have suddenly appeared, but it’s a risk that needs to be taken to keep the idea of universal suffrage and democracy alive.

    Do the writers of this blog regret the majority voting Leave? After all, if the referendum vote had gone the other way, there wouldn’t have been such a moment to even bother with. But perhaps you do. It wasn’t a nuanced response reflecting any distinct interest groups’ thinking about particular issues.

    That this blog has spent most of its time criticising this campaign and largely failing to examine the anti-democratic mood and machinations speaks volumes, as does the suggestion that no-one involved in the campaign is aware they may have different interests from others within it or that there is a lack of thinking or discussion about what life will be like post Brexit.

    Anyway, why the presumption that populism is bad and class interest parties are good? If the latter are so great how come they’re almost extinct? Perhaps the universalist sense of populism seems to offer, if briefly, a refreshing antidote to the self obsessed fussiness of identity politics.


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