It was the worst parliamentary defeat in the history of British democracy. The Brexit plan put forward by Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday went down by a landslide, 432 to 202.
Afterward, May addressed the House of Commons. “First,” she said, “to those who fear that the government’s strategy is to run down the clock to the 29th of March, that is not our strategy.” The caveat seemed unnecessary, since no could plausibly accuse her of having a strategy.
But then, neither does anyone else, which is why May, the Conservative Party leader, is still prime minister despite the no-confidence vote that Labour quickly called.
May survived that vote 325 to 306 Wednesday because no one else in her party has any more idea than she does about how to negotiate Britain’s departure from the European Union — at least not without doing violence either to democratic norms or to the British economy. Nor do they want to turn Parliament over to the radical-lefty stylings of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And so, with the March 29 exit deadline barreling down upon them, many looked at their alternatives, shuddered and essentially voted “none of the above” — heartfelt, perhaps, but not exactly practical.
May made roughly that point during her floor speech: “It is clear that the House does not support this deal. But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support. Nothing about how — or even if — it intends to honor the decision the British people took in a referendum Parliament decided to hold.”
Brexit’s opponents seem to be hoping that the answer to May’s implied question is, “Dear Lord, of course we shan’t honor it.”
Moments after May’s deal died, Edward Luce, Washington columnist of the Financial Times, tweeted, “Britain now has its best, and only realistic, chance of a 2nd referendum to reverse Brexit.”
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, took a similar line: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”
I heard echoes of these thoughts over and over in the ensuing hours — truly touching how many smart folks from all over the world, and the political spectrum, found harmonious agreement on this one issue. Pity, then, that they were all on the wrong side.
For the record, I think the outcome of Brexit is likely to be quite unhappy for Britain and for the “Leave” voters who expect it to improve their lives. My support for following through with it rests entirely on H.L. Mencken’s bitter proverb, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Coldblooded, I know. But let me join May in asking: What’s the alternative?
To answer that question, consider the French “yellow vest” protesters revolting against President Emmanuel Macron’s bloodless technocratism — or look closer to home, where much of America’s educated professional class is in a perpetual stew about President Trump’s violations of democratic norms.
Frankly, I’m stewing about them myself — boiling over, really. But I’ve had to reckon with readers who support Trump and are unmoved by my pleas about the sanctity of democratic proceduralism.
To them, all those sacred procedures are the way that insiders rig the game against outsiders such as themselves. Insiders may throw around phrases such as “the rule of law,” but in the end, what constitutes a violation of those rules is decided by a tiny class of judges and politicians, abetted by professional commentators. Like any hometown ref, outsiders say, the insiders call all the close ones in favor of their own class — or, for the ones that aren’t close, the rules can be rewritten on the fly.
It’s hard to deny that the sentiment has a grain of truth. Not when those elites respond to populist insurgencies by questioning the legitimacy of a presidential election conducted under long-standing rules, or by threatening to hold Brexit do-overs until the voters fall in line. Call me naive, but I think that when a populist campaign against self-dealing insiders starts smashing up your politics, the most important thing those insiders can do is not prove them right.
Feel free to argue that the insiders are right on every question, moral and practical; that their opponents are all befuddled swine. As long as the befuddled swine actually won the elections, by the rules as they were written, they will still have one crucial thing the insiders lack: democratic legitimacy. To ignore that mandate is to prove the truth of their charge that democracy no longer exists, and is instead an oligopoly dressing up in democratic regalia for purely ceremonial reasons.