Brexit, Democratic Values and the Post-National World We Live In

Britain voted to leave the European Union with a turnout of 72.2%. At the last general election turnout was 66.1%. In fact, the EU referendum represents the highest turnout in a nationwide election since 1992 and is only dwarfed by the 85% of the Scottish independence referendum. Anecdotally, people who had never voted before came out to determine Britain's future - or not - with her European neighbours. And it is because these extra and unexpected voters, enjoining in their democratic rights, allegedly placed not a cross on their ballot papers but a two-fingered scrawl to the establishment that the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Unexpected voters produced an unexpected result. Though, of course, nothing in hindsight is ever unexpected. The past has a certain inevitability about it, does it not?

Where exactly these salutes lay in the minds of those new voters who decided for Brexit, we will never really know. Motivation is hard to understand: decision-making rests on both emotional and more (though not entirely) rational streams. Everything about the referendum was wrong. General election after general election people have voted for parties who they feel to be more economically competent, whether it was Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s, Blair and Brown in the New Labour years and more recently David Cameron’s Conservatives. To call Brexit a risky economic decision is to stretch the elastic of British understatement to breaking point. A low turnout was said to favour Leave and the greatest worry was of a disappointing turnout for such a momentous decision. The paradox of the referendum has been the greater the referendum’s significance the more defiant the voters came in asserting their identity over economic warnings.

It is a paradox that has shocked the world. Brexit is to, say, America, what Donald Trump is to Britain.

we need to reframe democracy for a post-national age

The referendum demonstrates another conflict which is that we live both in an age where democracy is embedded into our consciousness but equally one of post-national globalisation. Our sense of democratic entitlement is more obvious than in previous decades. But globalisation in its fullest sense - international trade, Bretton Woods et al., the inter-connectedness of new technology - dominates our everyday lives. And despite all this, 'the other' has remained foreign - often literally.

Remainiacs may (justly?) feel that dated notions of sovereignty offer false comfort in a world which requires greater connectiveness rather than less, but they have been unable to answer how we reconcile the push-me pull-me clash of these two opposing forces.

Brexit might be the beginning of the end for ideas of greater international coordination and a reversion to early modern concepts (Treaty of Westphalia, don’t you know?). Or it might be a wake-up call we need to reframe democracy for a post-national age. It is too soon to say, to quote Zhou Enlai. At present, ideas of post-national democracy are largely imaginary: voter turnout in 2014’s European elections was 43% with votes seemingly determined by national preoccupations. The EU may have been a paradigmatic example of global governance but - unless something changes - that paradigm is no more.

Democracy is not so much about structures or even voting, but it is about a spread of values: an understanding of the rule of law, equality before the law, human rights and freedom of expression. Britain’s parliamentary system, with all its quirks and flaws, is structurally quite different from America’s federal system based on separation of powers, and checks and balances to authority. The values are similar though. The sense of British, or English, euroscepticism also raises questions about the ease with which Britain could ever have fitted into a system whose roots lay in Napoleon’s Alexandrian dream of a united Europe. "I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe," he stated nearly 200 year ago. 

post-national institutions are badly in need of reform. Pragmatic support is not enough

Post-nationalism needs greater democratisation without the imposition of unwieldy alternative states. The whole posture of the relationship between the national and the post-national has to change. Post-nationalism does not mean the end of the nation. Decisions must become not only traceable but accountable so that post-nationalism can co-exist with democratically egalitarian notions.

Yet surely we  have to go further. The question becomes how we transpose democratic values and their sense of belonging into a globalised world. Yes, post-national institutions are badly in need of reform. The Brexit vote demonstrates that pragmatic support is not enough. Post-nationalists have to look at how successful organisations - and maybe the referendum proves there is no more indestructible structure than the nation state - thrive. The answer lies in collective notions of identity and whether a sense of solidarity can co-exist on a universal, as well as merely patriotic, scale.

There is nothing inevitable about either democracy or post-nationalism but both are, arguably, necessary and innate goods. The emotional reaction of many to Brexit could be seen as an example of tribal identity working on different levels. Sit is not so much that the Europe Union needs a philosopher king but that, to ensure its continuance, post-nationalism needs one. And it needs one urgently.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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