The British do not “do” referendums well. Direct democracy is not really a British thing. The British do representative government well. Unlike Napoleon (his nearest counterpart), Oliver Cromwell never called a plebiscite. Cromwell came to power through a Parliament, albeit an unusually militant one, and when he became frustrated with their failure to do his bidding he appealed over their heads, not to the people, but to God.
Neither did his successors resort to them, at least not in the Bonapartist tradition of strengthening their own authority—as, most famously, did Charles de Gaulle. The British have used referendums not for centralizing power but for deciding issues that divided the parties internally and that MPs therefore preferred to avoid: in other words, for the European Union.
Now Britain’s ironic effort to use foreign methods to extricate itself from foreign rule is having repercussions for its parliamentary government. There are costs in allowing MPs to hide under the table when the public is clamoring for leadership, and now we see in full force the iron law of unintended consequences.
In this case Brussels may get the last laugh. The cost of putting the decision off on the voters appears to be a full-fledged coup d’état by Brexit opponent Theresa May. With machinations worthy of Yes, Prime Minister, Mrs. May has just effected a purge that, if not unprecedented, is at least innovative. With zero popular mandate, she has eliminated from the government—or hobbled within it—the key people who just won the popular vote and, in effect, installed the losers. (29% of the new Cabinet is “Brexiters”, and 71% “Remainers”.) No election has conferred any authority for this, and neither, we are told, will there be one to ratify it.
Yes, we hear that the new Cabinet is “peppered with pro-Brexit politicians”. But this is an illusion. Mrs. May knows that, whatever her rhetoric, her own political fate does not depend on making Brexit a success, and she has no incentive to put the full authority of her government behind it. She can delegate the task to the Brexiters—Boris Johnson, David Davis, et al.—who have been taken into the government to subsequently take the blame for the difficulties that will inevitably arise—all the more so because of a government chosen by MPs who favored “Remain”.
When Gordon Brown assumed power without an election and without calling one subsequently, he was labelled as cowardly, and it was predicted (correctly) that the result would be weak government.
But for Mrs. May we hear not a word of such reproof. On the contrary, we only hear about how strong and bold she is. Never mind that she and most of her new government were on the wrong side of the Brexit vote and that key people on the right side have been excluded. She has re-installed, with new faces, the same political class that the voters just explicitly rejected as “out of touch” and allowed them to tell the voters: “OK, you want out, you can have out, but it will cost you. We will run Britain by turning Westminster into an offshore Brussels.” Politicians of essentially the same political complexion as the EU elite—and if anything, more radical versions of Cameron’s “modernizers” rebuked by the voters—will legislate what they please from Westminster.
We hear this very clearly in the media accolades for Mrs. May for matters far removed from the momentous decision just handed down by the voters—indeed, matters that were clearly rejected by the voters when promoted by the EU: We are told to be impressed that her Cabinet appears to be a revolt against “privilege” in the form of private education, that she will place a high priority on “social reform” to relieve the “disadvantaged” and govern “not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” You might think she is Clement Atlee in 1945.
The difference is that no election has conferred her with any mandate for any of these things. On the contrary, the amorphous voters who did say something quite different now have virtually no control over how the politicians who refused to lead on Brexit now manipulate the results for their own purposes.
These accolades are spin, changing the subject from the voters’ revolt to a different agenda reminiscent of the soft Marxism that emanates from Brussels. It is a pat formula for further increasing the power of political operatives, whether in Brussels or Westminster, and one that has more than once rationalized the welfare expansion that turned pre-Thatcher Britain into “the sick man of Europe” and now once again threatens its solvency.
Perhaps the most revealing and pernicious feature of the spin, that helped Mrs. May into power by eliminating her main rival, was the vicious media campaign directed against Andrea Leadsom, centering almost entirely on her Christianity and family values—in other words, her adherence to traditional conservative principles.
Which brings us to what enabled Mrs. May to pull off this coup with not only little opposition but almost no recognition by the pundits of the sleight-of-hand that she and her allies manoeuvred. Certainly Mrs. May is a shrewd politician. Her reputation as “a deadly political infighter”, in Jonathan Foreman’s words, and for ruthlessly punishing criticism was recently demonstrated by the pressure she reportedly exerted on the Daily Telegraph to suppress Foreman’s highly critical story of her record as Home Secretary.
But the pundits know these tricks and should have been able to spot them if they had wanted to. Why have they given her such an easy pass? “Then, as now,” writes Foreman, “it was as if the icy Home Secretary had a dark magic that warded off all critical scrutiny.”
It is no accident that as Home Secretary Mrs. May pulled off another coup, also targeting traditional religious-family values, when she pushed through same-sex marriage, for which there was likewise no authority in the Tory Party election manifesto.
This time around Mrs. May pulled off another sleight-of-hand, using the silver bullet that always claims a mandate regardless of the voters’ wishes and one that also relies on sexual unmentionables. May has struck a blow for “gender equality”. Again, never mind that Brexit conferred no such mandate. Here no debate and no challenge are permitted by anyone: male or female, left or right. And it is gender equality as defined by the political class, whose members are the direct beneficiaries in the form of jobs.
Here too are overtones from Brussels and the innovative sexual agenda that forms a huge proportion of the EU’s under-the-radar-screen activity and that is now provoking dissent from Poland and elsewhere in the EU’s eastern flank.
Favorable commentators backhandedly acknowledged that Mrs. May simply replaced the “Cameroons” with female faces from the same (“out of touch”) governing class. “Maybe the problem with the modernisers was not that they were too glib or to wrong-headed,” writes Janet Daley, “but just that they were too male.”
When any ideology or its political embodiment becomes off-limits to criticism, someone is aggrandizing power. That someone now is the Conservative Party, which has managed to rid itself of almost all opposition, on both the left and the right. When May and others can slip in agendas that are completely irrelevant to what both the voters said loud and clear and the agreed legal procedures provided, then we have a coup, a power grab, a material diminution of the restraints of parliamentary government that is Britain’s gift to the world.
Anyone who sees Britain’s referendum as a vindication of direct democracy may need to be disabused. Europe’s crisis is much larger than the European Union, and it will take much more than a referendum to bring it under control.
Stephen Baskerville is Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College. His book, The New Politics of Sex, will be published by Wipf & Stock.
Photo Credit: Prime Minister Theresa May is welcomed by staff when she arrives in 10 Downing Street for the first time. By Tom Evans, Number 10 via Flickr. Crown Copyright.