The five years since the referendum have been a political rollercoaster. There was much talk of the British political system being in crisis. Looking back, a striking thing to note is the extent to which political actors and events upheld the basic principle of rule by consent of the governed – popular sovereignty if you will. There was no serious challenge to accepting the result. When the Supreme Court decided in favour of Gina Miller in her first case against the government in 2017, there was an outcry about the implications for British democracy. But the House of Commons voted by a large majority to trigger Article 50 and start negotiations with the EU over the terms of the UK’s exit.
The conflict was not about the principle of popular sovereignty itself but only how it should be institutionalised, meaning the relations between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The same occurred with the movement for a second referendum. Tactical considerations were behind Labour’s pivot towards supporting this policy. There was never a principled debate inside the party about sovereignty, democracy and the second referendum. At issue were short-term considerations about weakening the Corbyn leadership. And we should not forget that what settled the Brexit issue was a general election, where voters were presented with a clear choice about how to proceed. So why was Brexit so divisive? Not because there was a Remainer elite lurking and subverting British democracy, but because the policy of leaving the EU was so divisive. The conflicts of the past five years have been about policy, not about the nature of the British polity.
Of course, the extent to which the constituent nations of the UK recognise themselves as belonging to the wider category of the “British people” is in doubt, but this was already the case before 2016. The Brexit vote has revealed how important EU membership was in keeping together a fragile union. The implications for the rest of the EU are stark. Popular sovereignty may be far more deeply rooted than we imagine it to be in other EU member states, leading to more uncertainty about the political future of the EU.
Chris Bickerton is the author of “The EU: A Citizen’s Guide”(Penguin)