Brexit and ‘left’ cover for Farage and UKIP

by Chris Gilligan

On the 29th of March, the day that the United Kingdom (UK) was scheduled to leave the European Union (EU), the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its former leader, Nigel Farage, organised rival pro-Brexit rallies in London. The common rallying cry on both platforms was ‘the betrayal of Brexit’.

Speakers on both platforms railed against elites in the Westminster parliament who were betraying ‘the people’s vote’ (their term for the 52% vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU, in the 2016 referendum). This ‘betrayal of democracy’ claim is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong, because the Brexit mess in Westminster is an accurate reflection of the confused and fractured nature of ‘the will of the British people’. It is dangerous, because it is an argument that uses the claim to be defending democracy to attack democracy.

Some of those sharing the stage with Farage on the 29th are associated with the online magazine Spiked, which emerged out of the voluntary liquidation of the unorthodox Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). (Disclosure: I have written for Spiked in the past. But my criticisms of their Brexit stance are political, not personal). These speakers, (Brendan O’Neill, Claire Fox and Paul Embery), schizophrenically claim to be left-wing, and also claim that politics has moved beyond left and right. One of them, Claire Fox, has now joined two other Spiked writers, Stuart Waiton and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, in standing for Farage’s Brexit Party in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. This article focuses on these ‘leftists’ as exemplars of the attack on democracy from the right.

The ‘real’ democracy of the Leave vote

In the 2016 referendum, a majority (52%) of voters cast their vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU. The Spiked advocates of Leave argue that this vote was a ‘real’ expression of democracy. There are different elements of this argument. In this short article, there is only space to look at two of these: the idea that the referendum vote is ‘real’ because it was a direct expression of the will of the people, and; the idea that it is ‘real’ democracy because a majority voted for it.

The referendum is viewed as a direct expression of ‘the will of the people’ because it did not involve alienating one’s decision-making powers to a representative or delegate, instead it involved providing a clear instruction to government – Leave the EU. Failure to follow through on the Leave vote, the argument goes, is a betrayal of democracy.

In this view of the referendum, direct democracy is contrasted with representative democracy, and the latter is found wanting. Representative democracy is understood to be inferior because it involves the will of the people passing through a medium, the MP or the political party. And these mediators of the will of the people, are viewed as having failed to act in the interests of the demos. A referendum is purer, because it involves no mediation. The people decided, and it was MPs job to act on that decision.

Secondly, the Leave vote is presented as ‘real’ democracy because it was the option chosen by a majority of voters. Representative democracy in the UK has been presented by some Leave advocates as democratically inferior because elections to Westminster involve a first-past-the-post system of voting, which means that the House of Commons does not reflect the voting preferences of the electorate. As Claire Fox put it, ‘in its idealised form, people hold the vote and are equal as voters, in practice their vote may not count or will never make a difference. Just to use an example – in the last UK election, only one member of the UKIP party was elected… whatever you think of them, there are still millions and millions of people voting for them who are not able to get past the so called ‘first past the post’ electoral system, which delivers just one MP for millions of votes.’ So, the argument goes, the Leave vote is a clearer expression of the will of the people, because a majority voted for it, (unlike the current government, or even the majority Conservative government which preceded it).

These claims for the Leave vote as a superior expression of democracy than parliamentary representation are superficial and self-serving.

The limited democracy of the Leave vote

The claim that the referendum was a direct expression of the ‘will of the people’ is misleading. A referendum is a limited form of direct democracy. The referendum vote was only adirect expression of the will of the people at the moment of the vote itself. The will of the people was mediated, through the construction of the referendum. The voters did not decide that there should be a referendum, who was eligible to vote, nor what the question on the ballot paper should be. It was the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who decided that there should be a referendum and it was through parliament that the terms of the referendum were decided.

The will of the people has also been mediated through the interpretation of the Leave vote. In the months since the referendum numerous different versions of Leave have been proposed. ‘No Deal’ Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement, and the customs union are only the three (currently) most likely scenarios. Others include Canada, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland or Turkey models. The vote in the referendum does not tell us which one of these forms of leaving the EU is the one that people voted for.

Spiked have been supporters of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. They have argued that the Leave vote in the referendum was really a ‘No Deal’ Brexit vote. Their logic is that, since the other Leave options involve tying the UK to the EU in some way, they do not really involve leaving the EU. This is a logical argument, but it is not self-evident that this was the logic which informed the Leave vote. The attribution of this logical argument to all Leave voters involves the mystical divining of the rationale that informed Leave voters. That is a form of sorcery, not democracy. It is a self-serving argument, because it attempts to conjure a cohesive ‘hard’ Brexit majority out of a disparate Leave vote.

The Leave majority as an artefact

The idea that the referendum expressed the will of the majority of the people is also misleading. The majority in the referendum was partly an artefact of the referendum question. If there had been more than two options, (e.g. ‘No Deal’, ‘customs union’, Norway+), it is likely that there would not have been an overall majority for any one option. If ‘No Deal’ had been spelled out on the ballot paper, (e.g. ‘Leave, even if that means operating under WTO rules’), it is unlikely that there would have been a majority for Leave.

Nor was the majority vote an expression of a united will. The majority did not constitute themselves as a collective. There was not even a single Leave campaign, but rather an official Leave campaign and various unofficial campaigns, (including UKIP’s heavily anti-immigrant one, and various Left campaigns). O’Neill recognises the disaggregated nature of the popular will behind the Leave vote, in a fawning interview with Farage. In the interview O’Neill speculates that failure to leave the EU will lead to either the mass withdrawal of Leave voters from participating in elections, or to outbursts of rioting. Both are forms of protest, but they are also disaggregated forms.

Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the majority was also constructed through the exclusion of EU nationals from the vote, even though many of these EU nationals had been part of the British demos for many years. Many of these excluded members of the demos have been politically active since the referendum. They have been active campaigning against erosion of their rights, in the event of the UK leaving the EU. They have been active in campaigns for a, ‘people’s vote’, second referendum. They have been active in campaigns to revoke Article 50. This political activity is not anti-democratic, it is democracy in action.

The Brexit mess in parliament

I am not claiming that democracy in the UK is in a healthy condition. Westminster is evidently in turmoil because of Brexit. But why? Spiked have the answer. It is because a timid ‘Remoaner’ Prime Minister, Theresa May, and a parliament stuffed with Remain voting MPs, are attempting to frustrate the will of the people. This argument takes the fact that parliament has failed to agree on a leave option, as evidence that parliament doesn’t want to leave. To sustain this argument Spiked have had to find an anti-Brexit conspiracy everywhere.

Almost as soon as the referendum vote was counted Spiked were campaigning for parliament to invoke Article 50 and start the process of leaving the EU. The ‘slowness’ of parliament to do so was viewed as evidence that a Remain parliament was foot-dragging to frustrate the Leave vote. This theory, however, appears to be contradicted by the fact that when parliament did vote to invoke Article 50, they did so by a majority of 498 to 114. In retrospect the parliamentary decision to invoke Article 50 actually appears rushed, rather than reluctant, given the fact that the UK government was ill-prepared when entering the negotiating process with the EU.

Theresa May was hampered in her EU negotiations by a divided party, and Cabinet. She also had to contend with having to run a minority government, with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which took an intransigent line on Northern Ireland’s position in any Brexit deal. But this ‘Remain’ PM did negotiate a leave deal, the Withdrawal Agreement. So, did Spiked welcome the Withdrawal Agreement as a vindication of the Leave vote? Not exactly. O’Neill’s response was to claim that: “not since every British adult finally won the franchise in 1928 has a mass vote been so explicitly and wilfully overthrown”. Yes, you read that correctly, O’Neill claimed that May’s Leave deal was a betrayal of democracy. This betrayal narrative, that Spiked share with Farage, George Batten (UKIP’s new leader) and Tommy Robinson (former figurehead of the far-right English Defence League (EDL), and currently an ‘advisor’ to UKIP), is a recurring theme in Spiked commentary on Brexit.

Confusion, not conspiracy

There is a simpler explanation for the Brexit mess, one that also considers the evidence and is based in how parliament actually operates.

The role of an MP at Westminster has been traditionally conceived in a Burkean conception, (or trustee model).  According to this conception, the role of MPs is not to act as a delegate, but as a representative. As such, they are supposed to represent all of their constituents in parliament, not just the ones who voted for them. MPs are expected to represent their constituents who voted to Leave, those who voted Remain, and those who did not vote. From the perspective of MPs, therefore, interpreting the will of the people is difficult when only 37% of the electorate voted Leave, 35% voted Remain and 28% did not support either option. That simple arithmetic does not provide MPs with a guide to how to vote.

There are other ways in which MPs can discern ‘the will of the people’. These include constituency surgeries and other forms of constituency work. They also include opinion polls, and UK politics has gained an avid interest in opinion polls. Adrian Low, for example, has argued that ‘virtually all the [opinion] polls show that the UK electorate wants to remain in the EU, and has wanted to remain since referendum day’. This finding continues to hold true. The referendum, Low argues, provided a distorted expression of the will of the people and should be ignored. The UK parliament, he suggests, should revoke Article 50 and the UK remain in the EU. The opinion polls, however, provide contradictory findings. Anthony Wells, for example, has pointed out that some opinion polls indicate that a majority of people (69%) think that the result of the referendum should not be ignored or overturned. In other words, there is a popular majority for the UK leaving the EU. On the question of what form this leaving should take, however, ‘the will of the people’ is less clear.

There have been other, more participatory, expressions of popular will. These include e-petitions to parliament and public demonstrations. An e-petition calling for the UK to ‘Leave the EU without a deal in March 2019’, garnered more than 600,000 signatures; the second highest number for any e-petition to Westminster. This petition, however, was dwarfed by one calling on parliament to Revoke Article 50, which gained more than six million signatures, the highest ever number. The UKIP and Farage rallies in London on 29th of March were attended by thousands. The numbers at these protests were dwarfed by those on marches calling for a second referendum in June 2018, and by an even bigger crowd in March 2019.

These forms of participatory democracy indicate significant public support for revoking Article 50 and for a second referendum, much more than for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, but this support is not larger than the 17.4 million who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. These conflicting public expressions of the will of the people are reflected in parliament. In this sense parliament is not frustrating the will of the people, it is a concentrated expression of the confused will of the people.

Danger to democracy

The EU referendum has thrown UK politics into crisis. A majority voted to Leave, but what did they mean by Leave? When Theresa May was asked, she famously said ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The only reason why she could get away with such a vacuous statement is because no-one else knew what Brexit meant either. Or, to put it another way, everyone has their own idea of what Brexit means, but there is no way of deciding which one of these ideas is the correct one.

The Spiked Brexiteers have conjured up a Brexit majority, in their own image. They imagine themselves as the expression of ‘the will of the majority’. And they imagine themselves as valiant warriors, fighting against a ruling-class elite that despise ‘the people’. Their fantasies are a danger to democracy.

They are a danger to democracy, because they elevate rhetoric over evidence (e.g. from the e-petitions and protest marches and rallies; from the large parliamentary majority that invoked Article 50). They are a danger to democracy, because they rely on post-truth conspiracy theory, (‘it’s a Remain parliament thwarting the will of the people’), rather than the hard work of trying to understand and explain a complex, and evolving, situation. They are a danger to democracy, because they blame a ‘weak’ Prime Minister, and thus lay the ground for arguments for a ‘strong’ leader (like the self-seeking Boris Johnson).  And they are a danger to democracy, because they are providing ‘left’ cover for people like Farage, Batten and Robinson, who only support democracy in as far as it suits their own ends.

by Chris Gilligan

Originally published on 2 May 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

About the author:

Chris Gilligan is a veteran migrant rights activist. He is the author of Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism. He teaches at the University of the West of Scotland. A selection of his writings and talks on Brexit can be found here.