In 1945, after Winston Churchill proposed holding a referendum on the extension of the wartime coalition, his then deputy, Clement Attlee, replied: “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions.” The Labour leader feared that such an act would subvert the UK’s delicate, unwritten constitution.
Two referendums – on the European Economic Community in 1975 and on AV in 2011 – would eventually follow. But the EU vote on 23 June 2016 was the first that did not affirm the status quo. As Attlee warned, this act of direct democracy is upending once cherished traditions.
For decades, eurosceptics revered the UK’s unwritten constitution: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its neutral civil service. But an alternative centre of power – the people – has now been established. Rather than their loyalty to the constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted to Remain).
Brexiteers hailed the resignation of EU ambassador Ivan Rogers, one of the UK’s few European experts, on the grounds that he was insufficiently pro-Leave. “No organisation has done more to give away our democratic rights than the Foriegn Office,” declared Nigel Farage. “They’ve been doing it for decades and I very much hope that Sir Ivan is the first of many to go.”
There is no evidence that Rogers was seeking to block Brexit. Rather, he warned that it could take 10 years to finalise a UK-EU trade deal (a view echoed by other experts). It is not, after all, in Britain’s gift to determine how long the negotiations take. That depends on 27 others (all the more reason, perhaps, to value someone who understands them). But Roger’s successor will seemingly be valued for ideological purity, rather than expertise. Ministers, including Boris Johnson, are reported to believe that the next ambassador must be someone who backs Brexit “wholeheartedly”. A government source tells the Telegraph that Theresa May wants the next ambassador to be someone with the “same attitude [to Brexit] as the current government.”
Yet as Rogers notes in his leaked email to Foreign Office staff: “The great strength of the UK system – at least as it has been perceived by all others in the EU – has always been its unique combination of policy depth, expertise and coherence, message coordination and discipline, and the ability to negotiate with skill and determination. UKRep has always been key to all of that. We shall need it more than ever in the years ahead.”
The Brexiteers’ Bennite-esque dismissal of the “neutral” civil service is of a piece with their attitude towards parliament and the judiciary. When the High Court ruled that MPs must vote on the triggering of Article 50, its judges were branded “enemies of the people”. The Ukip leadership candidate Suzanne Evans suggested that they should be “subject to some kind of democratic control”. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid warned of “an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people”.
The elected Commons is no more respected. There is only one parliament that is currently guaranteed a say on the final Brexit deal – and it is not the British one. Brussels’ much-maligned MEPs, unlike MPs, are assured a vote.
Like past revolutionaires, the Brexiteers are seeking to remake national institutions in their own image. But as they contend with the biggest task facing any government since 1945, they may yet regret their dismissal of accumulated wisdom.