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Brexiters subvert democracy by trying to squish free speech

by Bill Emmott | 05.09.2017

I have been accused of many things during my 37 years as a journalist, but never of attempting to “subvert” democracy – until now. That is what my fellow journalist, Liam Halligan, accused me of during a Twitter exchange over the weekend of September 2/3:

This can, of course, just be put down to a Twitter spat between writers with differing points of view. Just as I take a point of view on Brexit through InFacts, Halligan does so in his Sunday Telegraph column and as one of the 17 economists, lawyers and businesspeople who have formed Economists for Free Trade.

It’s a shame that the other, anonymous, Twitter user in this argument doesn’t even stick to the facts – Labour supporters voted 65% to 35% for Remain.

But my exchange with Halligan fits another pattern among Brexiters that is indeed truly shocking. This is the pattern of accusing those who seek to exercise their right of free speech over the issue of Brexit as being “undemocratic” or guilty of subversion.

It was also on display when Professor Vernon Bogdanor argued that a second referendum on Brexit may be both necessary and desirable for reasons to do with parliamentary sovereignty, the people’s will, and the result of the 2017 general election. The constitutional expert was howled down by Brexiters such as Labour’s Kate Hoey MP, who described Bogdanor’s argument as a “pathetic attempt to undermine Brexit”. She went on to say “We voted to Leave and the detail of our leaving is not the subject for a referendum.”

Well, Hoey’s entitled to that point of view: that’s free speech for you. But aren’t I and others who think Brexit is a bad idea entitled to our points of view too?

To Brexiters, the Voltairean attitude to free speech, summed up by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, has evidently been adapted: “I disapprove of what you say, and now that a referendum has backed my view, I will defend to the death my right to stop you saying it.”

The argument amounts to the claim that democracy is to be welcomed, until it produces the answer that you want, after which all debate must cease.

Second referendum isn’t subversive

Halligan, Hoey and others frequently spice this argument up by claiming that the undemocratic EU has in the past made countries vote again after referendums produced unwelcome answers. So to argue for a second referendum is to act in the typically high-handed, undemocratic EU manner.

Marxist Brexiter Mick Hume made just that claim in a debate with me at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 22: apparently the EU “forced” Ireland to hold a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty in 2009, through “all sorts of blackmail”. The possibility that Ireland took the decision for itself, through its own procedures of parliamentary sovereignty and then with popular support, was inconceivable to him.

Sober independent analyses of second referendums in Ireland and Denmark produce a more balanced view of why Irish and Danish voters changed their minds. Neither “blackmail” nor “force” came into it.

Hume’s view is as self-contradictory as those of other anti-second-referendum Brexiters. In his latest book, Revolting, he claims “the establishment” now say “I am in favour of democracy, but”, the but coming when a Brexit vote or Trump’s election goes in a way of which they disapprove. Among Hume’s proposed solutions is more direct democracy. But a second referendum on Brexit, if the people change their minds or Parliament cannot agree on how to implement it? That would be undemocratic.

In fact, plenty of countries hold successive referendums on the same issue, if the matter is not politically resolved. Canadians tired of repeated votes on Quebec’s desire for secession spoke of “neverendums”.

And let the final word go to that champion of free speech Nigel Farage. Just a few weeks before the 2016 referendum he told  The Mirror  that if the result was a “narrow” win for Remain, say 52-48, he would consider it “unfinished business”.

Second referendum, anyone? What a subversive idea.

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This article has been updated to explain that Labour supporters voted 65% to 35% for Remain, not for Leave as the embedded tweet suggests.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Brexiters subvert democracy by trying to squish free speech”

  • Might be worth pointing out that the tweet by @Terminal4u which sparked Liam Halligan’s response is entirely wrong. Labour voters went 65:35 for Remain (source: YouGov). Let’s not let the liars get away with their casual deceit.

    And while I am here, why don’t we start a campaign to end anonymity on the internet? It is the root of so much evil.

  • This is the usual Brexiter BS. Why do they believe an advisory referendum, subject to falsehoods, lies and outside interference as the pinnacle of the democratic process? More importantly, why do they think democracy is a singular vote on a singular topic at a certain point in time? Have they never stopped to consider democracy is not just putting an ‘X’ on a piece of paper, but crucially involves debate, discourse, argument, agreement, and disagreement? Both in the run up to, during and AFTER an election or referendum!

    Of course, the main reasons for telling Remain voters to ‘get over it’ and shut up’ is to make sure any fellow Brexiters having doubts over their decision never get a chance to have those doubts aired. Not to mention it deafens any buyers remorse they may well be suffering themselves given the perilous state of the Brexit negotiations and the incompetence of the Three Stooges tasked with delivering it. Sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ”LA LA LA LAAAA” seems preferable.