From the way that the leading Brexiteers are currently carrying on, you would think that they are soon-to-be cabinet ministers in an impending government. Television studio audiences have been repeatedly marched in from off the street to ask what the UK will “look like” after Brexit. Is Nigel Farage able to divulge the exact levels of immigration under the new Australian-style points based system? Would Boris Johnson care to reflect on the proportion of GDP that will be spent on healthcare? Give us the figures – clarify the model – tell us what it looks like!
They might as well ask the cat. Vote Leave is not a political party, it does not issue manifestoes and, moreover, it is nowhere near to ever securing a working majority in the House of Commons. Boris has never held a formal position in the cabinet; Farage has never even been elected to the UK parliament (he is probably the most influential British politician since Arthur Scargill not to be a parliamentarian). Of the Brexiteers who have been cabinet ministers, none of them have held any of the four Great Offices of State. Michael Gove, Liam Fox, and Iain Duncan Smith all left their jobs either ignominiously or without having mastered the machinery of government to their own satisfaction (or both).
Tychy is voting for Leave because this is a vote for democracy and popular sovereignty. But there is no point in calling for something if you cannot recognise it when it is in front of you. Even if there is an avalanche for Brexit, on 24 June David Cameron will remain the Prime Minister. His administration really isn’t going anywhere. The Tories, even in extremis, are not about to replicate the opposition’s disastrous formula of promoting a contentious minority to the top of their party. The media has vaguely theorised that Cameron would have to resign if there was a Brexit, or appoint a suitably moderate Brexiteer such as Gove as his deputy. He doesn’t in fact have to do any of these things. Under the UK’s unwritten constitution, the referendum has no meaningful existence. It is just another law which any parliament can freely unmake. Cameron’s government is extremely unlikely to go back on a Brexit, but to contemplate this likelihood is to get somewhat nearer to the realities of power than we have travelled during much of the referendum debate.
There has been recently a disconcerting pattern in which electoral events have stopped making sense even on their own terms. Indeed, they have grown ever more unreal. In the April of last year, Tychy complained about the “weirdly disembodied election” in which “there is no actual incentive for Labour or the Tories to win outright… [because] they would be honour-bound to implement budgetary commitments which were only ever intended as brand fantasies.” I joked that if the Tories won, they would have to “call another election in a desperate attempt to reduce their power.” The joke was on us – the Tories won a majority – but the unreality of their election merely lived on into the resultant, largely non-existent government. Policies were junked, delayed, or, in one notable instance, reversed by the House of Lords.
In the US, a similar hallucinatory logic has distinguished the widespread reaction to Donald Trump’s election to the Republican presidential ticket. The media has most typically regaled us with a delirious rhapsody in which Trump fortifies the US border, alienates longstanding allies, and commences a trade war with China and a real war with the rest of the planet. Where have these people been for the last eight years? Barack Obama was a painfully unadventurous President who was still brought to the brink of supreme political isolation by the US’s creaking, eighteenth-century apparatus. The reality of the US is that nothing can be ever achieved until the rare event of a hegemonic consensus throughout the three branches of its government. With only the Rust Belt on his side, Trump is a presidential candidate in name alone. The lurid visions of his presidency barely qualify as plausible science-fiction.
And so on to the referendum debate which is comparable to the Trump bubble in the throbbing fever of its senselessness, the spuriousness of its reality. David Cameron has warned relentlessly against capital flight and decimated pensions, at every available opportunity, as if Nigel Farage would be somehow running the country after Brexit. It is far less stirring for the Prime Minister to admit that he could mitigate many of the alleged consequences of a Brexit simply by virtue of his being the Prime Minister. With no direct threat to the balance of power, the referendum has degenerated into Cameron talking to himself or debating with figments of his own imagination. Alas, these figments still gamely turn up to appear in the Sky and Question Time debates.
Some people deplore referendums altogether and perhaps it is enough to concede that these commentators have a certain gritty realism on their side. A Brexit vote would represent a great ghostly wail from the electorate. It would run through our democracy like an ice-cold draught and shake everything down to its foundations. Yet it would not have any hands to set to work. Ideally, the referendum would come with a clause which triggered an immediate general election if there was a Brexit vote, to legitimise the result and harmonise it with the sovereignty of the government. Cameron is naturally far too clever for this.
Cameron is right – a post-Brexit UK will indeed look like Norway. The Norwegian people voted twice against EU membership, in 1972 and 1994. Their rascally political class, which was overwhelmingly in favour of the EU, nonetheless signed up Norway to many of its features, including membership of the Schengen area, in order to predispose the country to an ultimate acceptance of EU rule. The UK’s political elite, and the paternalistic middle class which gives it so much of its support and character, may be wrenched away from the EU. Our elite may jealously eye nations on the continent in which the electorates have to shut up and see their demands constantly negotiated out of existence. The scheming to bounce the UK back into this system will be presumably never-ending. Those who most object to the idea of popular sovereignty will come to seek solace in its opportunities to undermine itself.