Brexit is a textbook example of the crisis of modern advanced democracy. It shows that without the development of the culture of political debate and a new type of civic education, public opinion is vulnerable to manipulation. The Brexit referendum was a travesty of democracy. No one could know what a ’yes’ or ’no’ vote would ultimately mean. Citizens were deprived of the opportunity to form their opinion based on relevant facts.
Brexit, with all its attendant side-effects, is not fundamentally a political problem but a matter of philosophy of history, philosophy of law, and political science. Along with McCarthyism, Finlandization, and the campaign against the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election, it will be a subject of study as advanced democracies seek to reform.
The following is a brief overview of some features of Brexit.
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The road to the Brexit referendum
In January 2013, the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership if the Conservative Party wins the next general election in 2015. Cameron himself was in favour of Britain’s EU membership.
Cameron’s initiative was driven by two factors: firstly, the Conservative Party’s growing anti-EU opposition, and secondly, fears that Nigel Farage’s anti-EU UKIP would gain in popularity at the expense of the Conservative Party.
The referendum initiative was thus motivated purely by party and electoral tactics, not by a desire to stimulate debate on the crisis of democracy, globalisation, development of the EU, etc.
Other parties, including those in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, had also proposed a referendum on Britain’s membership on various occasions.
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The biggest single reason for Brexit victory: the EU’s unlawful eastward expansion
Brexit was most obviously the British version of the 2016 Trump phenomenon in the US. Behind it was legitimate discontent with developments in the EU and Britain. Many regions and sectors of the economy had suffered from globalisation; the UK had been subjected to strict austerity policies; the already large income and wealth disparities in the country had widened, etc.
The Brexit referendum was an opportunity to protest against the prevailing course.
But because the way the referendum questions were framed did not raise real problems and issues of discontent, the debate was hijacked by demagogues who relied on and fuelled public prejudice. As a result, to cut a long story short, older white men living in declining communities voted for Brexit.
Immigrants were an easy target on which to project discontent.
Both before the 2010 and 2015 elections, David Cameron had promised to curb immigration. He failed to keep his promise.
Were there grounds for criticism on immigration?
A report made by Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in 2018 found that EU migrants did not take jobs from Brits nor slash wages and paid more in taxes than they used social assistance.
But concerning both employment and wages the report found evidence suggesting that low-skilled British workers face “negative effects”.
New evidence suggests that the “negative effects” were more significant than the report found.
Jobs for EU migrants increased in the years after the financial crisis at the same time as unemployment rose among Britons. After the financial crisis, wages fell for several years. At the same time, from the mid-2000s onwards, immigration increased further, partly due to immigration from the new EU countries. Net immigration is estimated to have ranged between 150,000 and 300,000.
Overall, the number of migrants from other EU countries coming to Britain seems to be much higher than the authorities have estimated. After Brexit, EU citizens in the UK have to apply for residence permits. In June 2021, a month before the deadline, 5.6 million applications had been received, compared with the 3.6 million anticipated by the authorities. For example, more than 760,000 applications had been submitted by Romanians, compared to the expected number of about 400,000.
Since Brexit, the number of EU migrants has fallen by more than a third. The number of migrants from non-EU countries has increased, but not enough to replace those who left. Business leaders fear that labour shortages will undermine economic growth. In some sectors, employers have been forced to raise wages to attract British workers.
It is obvious that wage growth in Britain was slowed down by the entry of migrants into the labour market after the EU’s eastern enlargement (alongside the recession caused by the financial crisis).
If the EU enlargement to the East had taken place according to law, i.e. requiring the applicant countries to meet the main membership criteria, they would have joined later than they did now. In that case, the standard of living in those countries relative to the Western member states would have risen before accession, and there would have been less emigration to the West.
In that case, the eastern member states would not suffer the population loss and labour shortages caused by emigration, which is now hampering their economic growth.
Obviously, the eastward enlargement of the EU carried out in violation of the EU Treaties was the main contribution of the EU to Brexit.
The main arguments of the Brexit campaigns were lies
During the campaign leading up to the referendum, the pro-Brexit side focused on a few simple arguments that their initiators most likely knew to be lies. So did both the official Vote Leave campaign fronted by then London Mayor Boris Johnson and the Leave.EU campaign led by Nigel Farage’s UKIP.
Many experts – the IMF, World Bank, Bank of England, OECD – calculated that EU membership is economically more beneficial to Britain than Brexit. The Brexit campaign made little attempt to refute those calculations. Instead, it resorted to ‘alternative facts‘.
The Brexit campaign had the backing of the British tabloid press, traditionally very sceptical about the EU. The newspapers were ruthlessly spreading inaccurate or distorted information about the EU as early as the 1990s. That sabotage of citizens’ freedom of opinion was excelled by Boris Johnson, then a Brussels correspondent for various newspapers. His untrue claims included, for example, that the EU was planning a standard size for condoms.
”£350 million a week”
The most prominent lie of the Brexit campaign was the claim that Britain paid the EU £350 million a week and that after Brexit, the sum can be used, for example, for public healthcare. The text ”£350 million a week” shone in large letters on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus.
The Vote Leave campaign leader Dominic Cummings himself later estimated that the campaign won precisely on that £350 million claim and would have lost if they had talked about ”trade and the Single Market”.
UKIP leader Farage, the head of the rivalling Leave.EU campaign, admitted the day after the referendum that it was a ”mistake” to make such a claim and that he could not guarantee that the promise of extra funding for healthcare would be fulfilled.
Instead, in autumn 2017 , the then British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, still repeated the lie. A few months later, he even increased the amount. Just over three years after the referendum, he had reduced the amount to £250 million – which was still a lie.
”Turkey is joining the EU”
Another, perhaps more effective, lie repeated by the Brexit campaign was the claim that ”Turkey is joining the EU”. (See, for example, the Vote Leave campaign site.)
According to opinion polls, it was precisely the untrue claim of Turkey’s imminent EU membership that turned a majority of Britons in favour of Brexit within days. The lie was reinforced by the claim that as a member of the EU, ”Britain’s new border is with Syria and Iraq”.
Turkey had applied for EU membership in 1987 and was indeed accepted as an applicant country in 1999. In October 2004, the EU Commission recommended opening membership negotiations with it. Following a decision by the European Council in December 2004, accession negotiations with Turkey were opened in October 2005.
But negotiations almost came to a standstill as early as December 2006, when Turkey refused to ratify the Customs Union agreement and open its ports to Cyprus. In 2014, shortly before the Brexit campaign began, the UK Foreign Office estimated that Turkey would be ready for membership ”in a decade or so”. In autumn 2015, Cyprus announced its opposition to restarting the still stalled negotiations.
The leadership of the Vote Leave campaign could not be unaware of the breakdown in the negotiations with Turkey. Nor could they have been unaware that any new accession treaty must be ratified by the parliaments of all member states. In any case, the British Parliament could have blocked Turkey’s accession if it wished.
The false claim that Turkey was about to join was, of course, likely to increase fears of immigration from EU countries.
Britain’s anti-EU tabloid press deliberately spread lies, among others, about immigration. According to a survey in 2014 (page 57) – two years before the referendum – Britons believed that 20% of the country’s population were Muslims – the real figure was 5%.
Of course, a key reason why immigration became such a central factor in the Brexit referendum was the refugee crisis that began in 2015. It contributed to the rise of anti-EU sentiment in the UK. This was despite the fact that the refugee crisis was not caused by the EU. Most of the refugees were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The crises in those countries were not caused by the EU. And, for example, the vast majority of refugees fleeing from the Syrian civil war went to Syria’s neighbouring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. And within the EU, far fewer refugees came to Britain than to other EU countries on average.
The Brexit campaign confused two very different issues. It used the term ’migrants’ to mean not only citizens of other EU countries who came to Britain to seek work but also refugees from crisis and war zones. The confusion of terms was most obviously deliberate. It tended to downplay the refugee crisis and the precarious position of refugees and to increase the general anti-alien and anti-EU sentiment.
British refugee policy and immigration from the EU were governed by completely different rules. The latter was a consequence of Britain’s membership in the EU internal market. Instead, British refugee policy was not affected by the country’s membership in the EU. Britain had opted out of the EU’s common asylum policies and was bound only by international conventions it had accepted, which were not dependent on EU membership.
According to a post-referendum study, ”prejudice towards EU immigrants was a powerful predictor of support for Brexit [while] positive contact with immigrants had prejudice-reducing effects.” Indeed, support for Brexit was higher in areas with few immigrants.Whatever the real negative effects of immigration, the Brexit campaign fuelled fears, prejudice, xenophobia, and racism in a way that is still having an impact.
“Take back control”
The central slogan of the Brexit campaign, “Take back control”, is misleading, to say the least.
First, Britain had accepted the EU Treaties, the accession of all the new member states to the EU, and the individual EU-Britain solutions.
Secondly, in the current global context – even before the Covid pandemic – the slogan was irresponsible. Stopping climate change requires precisely global coordinated, jointly decided, and jointly monitored action. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO and many other experts have repeatedly reminded that the pandemic should be managed globally together: no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Thirdly, international trade also requires negotiation – one party, especially one medium-sized country, cannot dictate the terms. In trade negotiations, the EU has argued for better than average environmental, worker and consumer protection and has emphasised human rights more than its global competitors. In this respect, leaving the EU certainly did not guarantee better results for ordinary Britons.
Furthermore, the systematic lying described above meant that the public was deprived of control over the formation of their opinions – i.e. freedom of opinion, in a way typical for totalitarianism.
In effect, the media were used to make citizens unwitting agents of the power grab of a part of the British political elite.
The Remain campaign did not tell the truth about the EU
The Remain campaigners failed to highlight the fact that there are structures and practices in the EU that are contrary to the rule of law, which enabled the Treaty violations in the context of the eastward enlargement and were likely to create legitimate suspicion towards the EU.
Supporters of EU membership did not say that the eastward enlargement took place in violation of the Treaties, i.e. de facto unlawfully. The Remain side should have pointed out the illegalities and demanded them to be corrected. It would have reduced the impact of the immigration issue – the ‘Polish plumber’ – on the referendum.
Thus the Remain side’s attempts to refute the lies of the Brexit side were not credible.
The Brexit campaign’s claim about Turkey’s impending accession to the EU, on the other hand, had credibility. After all, Bulgaria and Romania had been admitted to the EU though hardly anyone dared to claim they were rule-of-law states even in 2016 – unlike the Commission officials had claimed already in 1998.
Turkey was accepted as an EU candidate country in the autumn of 2004, just as unlawfully, and accession negotiations started a year later. The EU Treaties stipulate that the opening of accession negotiations is conditional on the applicant country being governed by the rule of law and guaranteeing respect for and protection of minorities, among other things.
Turkey did neither. The Turkish constitution does not even recognise a Kurdish minority, and the public use of the Kurdish language was virtually banned in the early 2000s. Torture was systematic, as both human rights organisations and the UN had said. It was also known to the EU Commission. It is downright grotesque that in November 2005, after the accession negotiations had already begun, the Commission demanded Turkey to stop the torture within two years.
The EU’s decision to accept Bulgaria and Romania as members contrary to the Treaties – which led to immigration from those countries to the EU’s western member states – and opening accession negotiations with Turkey gave arms to the Brexit side.
The Remain side could only have countered the lies spread by the Brexit campaign by trying to build an overall picture of the crisis of democracy in the West and its connection with the new phenomena of the age, the information technology revolution and globalisation. Collective self-deception is fuelled by lies that reinforce people’s prejudices. But in denying that there was any reason to be suspicious of the EU, the Remain side itself was guilty of collective self-deception.
The referendum was irrational
What was the situation in Western democracies after the financial and euro crisis? What were the main challenges they faced? Were the challenges the UK was facing substantially different from those facing other Western EU member states? Was it easier for Britain to meet those challenges inside or outside the EU?
Whether it was a question of relations between the UK and the EU, the development of the EU, globalisation, the development of international cooperation and world trade, etc., it was impossible to make a rational decision on the basis of a single yes or no question.
The UK’s economic relationship with the EU after Brexit alone could take many very different forms, from remaining in the single market to various customs unions to a no-deal divorce. The Brexit side slogans ”Brexit means Brexit” and ”Leave means Leave” were to mislead the public. What ”Leave” and ”Brexit” actually mean will only become clear when the Withdrawal Agreement comes into force and is applied in practice.
And even more relevant would have been the question of Britain’s direction after the divorce. In what way could Britain be more democratic, fairer, safer, more climate-friendly, etc.? How to respond to the threats to democracy to which the EU, in the view of the Brexiteers, responded wrongly?
All the essential questions were ignored in the referendum debate.
So the supporters of neither side really knew what they were voting for or against. The referendum was at least misleading, if not downright absurd, and would have been so even if the parties had not lied or concealed essential facts.
External forces may have influenced the referendum
The Johnson administration has refused to investigate Russian influence on the referendum, despite evidence of Russian interference in elections and politics in general in many other countries. A report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee accused the government of making “a deliberate effort not to find out how Russian influence may have affected the June 2016 vote“, as CSIS researchers aptly summarise.
Chatham House researcher Keir Giles suggested that Russia was not specifically supporting either side but was primarily aiming to stir up discord and cause division. That objective, at least, was achieved.
So, the ’take back control’ label, in the view of the British government, did not mean that British citizens should have the power to decide, without interference from foreign powers, how they form their opinions on an issue significant to the fate of the nation.
The road to hard Brexit
How Brexit was hijacked
Tom Costello’s documentary ”Power, Profit and Populism: The Battle for Hard Brexit” tells how, after the referendum, a small group of wealthy entrepreneurs, investors, and politicians actually hijacked Brexit. They represent the forces of speculative financial capital that see regulation of any kind as an obstacle to ’free trade’.The EU is the largest free trade area in the world, but there are regulations to protect the environment, workers, and consumers.
An opposition was formed in the Conservative Party against Theresa May, who became prime minister after David Cameron. At its core was the European Research Group, a eurosceptic conservative group that advocates deregulation.
A figurehead of the opposition became London Mayor Boris Johnson, who saw his chance of becoming prime minister as being in favour of the hard Brexit. In 2019, the parliament opposition repeatedly defeated May’s already negotiated withdrawal agreement. Two private companies, one disguised as a grassroots movement (Leave Means Leave) and the other as a party (Brexit Party), fuelled support for a hard Brexit and helped force Theresa May to resign. After her, Johnson became prime minister.
The aim was and is to turn Britain into a kind of European tax haven, attracting investors with looser regulation than the EU. Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which advised the government, described the goal in a newspaper article in early 2020. Its headline says it all: ”We should embrace the idea of Britain as a tax haven post-Brexit.” These forces want to create a ’Global Britain’ – and for them, that means succeeding in the race to the bottom.
British governments were twice forced by Supreme Court rulings – Theresa May’s government in 2017 and Boris Johnson’s in 2019 – to abandon their attempts to push through Brexit without letting parliament deal with the issue.
The current British government’s approach to international agreements is illustrated by its intention in autumn 2020 to break international law in a ”very specific and limited way” by introducing legislation to waive border controls on goods exports to Northern Ireland, in breach of the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It, however, abandoned this intention in December 2020.
Against this background, it is no wonder that the UK has been lukewarm to US President Joe Biden’s initiative for a global minimum tax on business. The UK is home to many tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and Bermuda and intends to continue as a global centre for money laundering.
In the Brexit campaign, the goal of tax haven Britain was not raised – at least not with the same emphasis as the key lies.
After Brexit, the overwhelming majority of Britons, 80%, still favoured regulation, for example, on environmental protection as strict or stricter than in the EU.
So the fact that a slim majority of Britons supported Brexit, and thus the goal of getting rid of EU regulation, did not necessarily mean that they were in favour of looser regulation than the EU.
Brexit was pushed through with lies and then hijacked by a small political group to pursue objectives for which the support of a majority of the public has neither been sought nor obtained.
Politics built on lies cannot help but tear a nation apart
Britain is threatened by division – figuratively and literally.
First, the nation was divided in two by lies deliberately spread. A large part of the population still believes in those lies.
Second, the Brexit campaign increased racism, xenophobia, hate speech, and hate crimes in Britain. They have increased even after the referendum.
An interesting feature is that hate crimes have increased particularly in areas that voted Remain, despite these areas having generally lower incidents of hate crime per immigrant.
The reason was that, with the Brexit debate, anti-immigrant attitudes became more acceptable. Xenophobic people in areas where the general mood was more tolerant got encouraged after the Brexit result as they realised they were not alone in their opinions.
A recent example of the lasting legacy of the Brexit campaign is the racism directed at players of immigrant origin in England’s national team following the team’s defeat in the European Football Championship final in summer 2021.
In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been a growing push for secession from Britain. In Scotland, 62% voted Remain, and pro-independence forces are planning a new referendum on leaving the UK.
In Northern Ireland, 56% voted Remain. There, the outcome of the referendum and the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement was of particular importance as it affects the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. Under the Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s single market and customs union, with no customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but on the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The Loyalist Communities Council, representing Northern Ireland’s paramilitary loyalist groups, withdrew its support for the peace agreement, and there has been unrest in the region.
Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, announced that a referendum on Irish unification could be held within five years. She was confident that unification would take place.
The same view was expressed by Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who told his Fine Gael party conference that he believed Ireland would be united during his lifetime.
Britain today: the crisis of democracy in a nutshell
Lies cast long shadows
The fairness and therefore the legality of the 2016 British referendum and the 2017 and 2019 general elections is questionable: the collective self-deception fuelled by distortion and disregard of facts in the campaigns prevented citizens from voting on the basis of real consideration of the facts.
More than two years after the referendum, 42% of Britons still believed the claim about Britain’s £350 million net contribution, while 36% believed it to be a lie. The remainder, 22%, were undecided. In other words, almost two-thirds of the public were unaware that a decision crucial to the fate of the nation was based on a gross hoax.
In October 2019, two months before the election, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly lied in Parliament that there would be no border controls between the UK and Northern Ireland, despite the fact that the Brexit deal had agreed to them and his government’s impact assessment stated so. – The public was given a whitewash of the Brexit deal.
Despite this, in the December 2019 general election, a majority of voters, 52%, voted for parties that supported remaining in the EU or a new referendum. – A minority of the public supported the line represented by the post-election Conservative government of Johnson.
Boris Johnson, who led the Brexit campaign and came to power on the back of lies, is still Britain’s Prime Minister.
In winter 2019, Mr Johnson was sued for making lies during the Brexit campaign as Mayor of London and as a Member of the British Parliament. The court ruled that there were no grounds for criminal charges. Marcus Ball, who brought the case, argued that one of the judges who heard the case had a conflict of interest.
We believe that the problem is not limited to Johnson himself, to his statement here or there, or the decision of individual British judges, or even to the actions of this or that political group. The question is broader and applies to all Western democracies: how is it possible that in a country with the rule of law, an established parliamentary democracy and freedom of opinion, a political system can be totally overwhelmed by collective self-deception?
Brexit: a new beginning?
”Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” These words by the Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift describe the Brexit process well.
Brexit was a defeat for the EU and Britain. It was also a defeat for democracy. Why? – Not because there were no legitimate arguments for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. There were. One of the best was put forward by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the pro-EU financial journalist of The Telegraph, in a column published on 13 June 2016, in which he said he would vote ”with sadness and tortured by doubts” for Brexit.
He listed numerous reasons for his decision, relating to the establishment of the EMU, the ECB’s actions, and the EU economic policy in general. He said that all decisions are made behind the scenes, are unfair to the crisis countries, and no one is accountable for anything. The main argument: ”There has been no truth and reconciliation commission for the greatest economic crime of modern times.”
Evans-Pritchard’s criticism was justified. Many other arguments could have been put forward in favour of leaving the EU, such as the lack of legality and unlawful eastward enlargement, for example. However, the Brexit decision was made on other, false grounds. It was a triumph of collective self-deception that is reflected in British politics today and presumably also in the future.
The EU, too, has responded to Brexit with collective self-deception: there has been no talk in the EU’s decision-making bodies of correcting the illegalities that, according to Evans-Pritchard, call for a truth and reconciliation commission.
We think that Britain should have stayed in the EU. The problems of the EU, the EU Member States and Britain are the same. They need to be solved together.
Of course, Britain’s departure from the EU does not mean that problems could not be solved together. In this situation, the UK may become a pioneer. There, the issues associated with the legality crisis of democracy – which are not so much political problems as those concerning political science and the philosophy of history and law – are perhaps more visible than in the EU countries. In Britain, if anywhere, the following questions need to be asked: How to prevent an economic interest group from subjugating the political system to its cause?
How to prevent the media from lying in a way that de facto deprives citizens of freedom of opinion? How to prevent politicians from lying in a way that de facto deprives citizens of the right to vote? How to prevent leading politicians from undermining the pillars of a democratic society? How to prevent hate speech and the spread of conspiracy theories? How to resist collective self-deception?
We have our own proposal on how to begin to solve the legality crisis – and it includes a truth and reconciliation commission.