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I Accuse! How Brexit Populism Is Destroying Democracy

31/01/2017 12:31 GMT | Updated 31/01/2017 12:31 GMT
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS via Getty Images

Roughly 27% of the population of the UK voted to leave the European Union. What they voted for is impossible to know, since the ballot did not ask. Did they vote to stop European citizens from living in the UK? Did they vote to leave the single market? Did they vote to get more money for the NHS because they believed the blatant lies of the Leave campaign? Did they vote to 'regain sovereignty' so the UK can ally itself with Donald Trump?

The outcome is now routinely referred to as the will of the people; increasingly authoritarian attempts to make decisions without parliament are justified by reference to it. Yet both the referendum itself and the ways in which its result has been used belong to the realm of populism rather than to that of democracy.

In such a situation, the intellectual's duty is to protest. As Émile Zola raised his voice against the injustice of the Dreyfus trial, addressing the president of the republic, we must raise our voice against the politicians who brought about and who are exploiting the referendum result. We must demand that our MPs turn against populist authoritarianism and restore true democracy. As Zola had so perfectly formulated over a hundred years ago, 'As they have dared, so shall I dare. Dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full... My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be an accomplice.'

Populist authoritarianism is on the rise in the world and is now the gravest danger to democracy. Populism is not democracy, for democracy is not a mere number-game. Rather, democracy is about the good of the many: it is about the extension of basic rights and liberty, rather than their curtailment; it is about guaranteeing human rights to all.

In contrast, even if a majority wants to destroy basic rights, that is not democracy. Popular will often upholds antidemocratic principles, the more so when political manipulation and lies mislead people. To recognize one's true interests is not always easy, and as history has repeatedly shown, unscrupulous political manipulators can influence large masses.

Populism is always attractive to a certain brand of politician who can gain power through it, and appeals to many ordinary people with grievances, but its effects are disastrous. Over the course of history, popular will played a role in depriving people of basic rights, and in mass murder. At one time, popular will condoned lynching people because of the colour of their skin, and at other times, it justified robbing people and killing them because of their religion.

While it may be easier to distinguish democracy from populism in retrospect, rather than while living through the period when democracy is destroyed in a populist upsurge, there are some pointers. Among them are the use of misleading lies and bombastic sound-bites that can never translate into deliverable policy; the lack of a clear, realisable programme; secret deals that use taxpayer money without revealing details to those taxpayers; blackening the name of political opponents as traitors to the nation. Above all, references to the will of the people that supposedly allows a government to act without democratic checks and balances, and gain greater control.

What Brexit is already bringing to Britain is fear, exclusion, the harassment and anxiety of millions of innocent people. EU citizens are gratuitously deprived of their rights by a PM who has amply demonstrated her profound disregard for human suffering. As Home Secretary, she had broken apart thousands of families who had done nothing wrong; their 'crime' was that one spouse happened to be a non-EU member and the UK citizen spouse earned less than £18,600 a year. The government attempted to sideline Parliament, and was not displeased by populist propaganda against judges who upheld the democratic system.The most recent moves towards alliance with authoritarian politicians are an additional warning sign of the direction of travel.

Democrats do not need hate-speech, they do not need to accuse political opponents of being traitors to the nation, they do not use human beings as bargaining chips. Reckless politicians who use populism to stifle criticism also open a Pandora's box they can no longer close. The popular will may be an attractive means to entrench the power of the few, since the popular will, so vague, so ill-defined, can be invoked for such diverse purposes. Yet once hate speech enters politics, it destroys the fabric of society. It is not enough to condemn hate crimes; the government cannot indulge in even fleeting support of the underlying divisive rhetoric.

Our MPs should consider if Brexit Britain, where fear and violence continue to grow, where the few benefit politically and financially on the back of the many engulfed by poverty, a Britain that allies itself with Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in the interests of this country. MPs must act now, take responsibility and oppose Brexit in the name of democracy.