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