As storms go the one that arose from last Thursday’s referendum result will have to rank as the Hurricane Patricia of contemporary British political history. The trail of devastation it left in its wake included a Prime Ministerial resignation, an imploding Labour party and a paroxysm of racial/religious intolerance exceeding anything witnessed in recent decades.
The outcome came as something of a shock to campaigners on both sides of the Remain-Leave divide; a close result had always been on the cards but with the clear expectation of a Remain victory, albeit a narrow one. While Nigel Farage busied himself in a bout of celebratory jingoism, stupefied Remainers attempted to rationalise precisely why so many had voted to exit the European project.
Talk of immigration, economics, and political sovereignty have all featured heavily in recent days and while undoubtedly all have played a part in the collective decision to leave, to focus on them would be to miss the wood for the trees. The nature of political participation, the relationship between governments and the governed is in a state of flux and the Brexit vote is but the first step in the redrafting of this contract.
Five years ago the world witnessed a series of popular revolutions engulf the Middle East. The reasons for peoples’ discontent were multifarious yet a common thread united them all – accountability. No longer were a disenfranchised multitude prepared to accept rule by diktat; protestors demanded the introduction of a democratic electoral process and a constitution enshrining political accountability. The days of a sequestered political elite administering nations in the manner of a medieval fiefdom seemed finally at an end.
The ‘Arab Spring’ was precipitated in large part by the proliferation of satellite channels, internet access and social media across the region. For the first time people had the ability, in real time, to access and widely disseminate news free of government censorship. The ineptitude and corruption of the ruling class had long been the subject of a sort of hazy acknowledgement but which lacked any real granularity, now, however, thanks to Al Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter their malfeasance (and outright criminality) would find itself meticulously catalogued and laid bare for all to peruse. Thanks to the ubiquity of the smartphone orchestrating mass protests had become possible at the push of a button. In retrospect the uprisings should have come as no great surprise, the region had become a powder keg awaiting a spark, one that was, quite literally, ignited on the 17th of December 2010.
While a span of several thousand miles separates the Middle East and the United Kingdom the phenomenon of internet inspired political ferment has become a global one. Granted the baseline here in Britain might be several notches higher than in, say, Egypt, yet the underlying grievances are in truth remarkably similar. The growing disconnect in recent years between electorate and politicos [https://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/blog/why-are-citizens-britain-discontented-politics] has – just as in the Middle East – been largely fuelled by the information revolution i.e. the ability to rapidly disseminate news and opinion free of editorial oversight to a mass audience. No longer can the BBC, the broadsheet and tabloid newspapers – the so-called ‘mainstream media’ – lay exclusive claim over what people read and see. Social media has afforded all the ability to project their voices far beyond what would previously have been possible. Naturally not all of these voices are interested in promoting accurate and objective reporting and one of the down sides of this new found liberty has been the profusion of demagoguery and incitement percolating across cyberspace.
Today anyone connected with governance, from humble parish councillors up to senior civil servants and cabinet members, are acutely aware of the potential to find themselves subject to the intense glare of public scrutiny. E-petitions, calling for anything from the arraignment of the ex-Prime Minister on war crimes charges to the barring of US Presidential nominees from entry to the country, garner tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of digital signatures in a matter of a few days. In such circumstances it has become increasingly difficult for the political class to carry on with business in the manner they have traditionally been accustomed to i.e. feigned interest in popular concerns at election time followed by five years of abject disregard and contemptuous indifference. It is in this context that the Brexit vote must be understood.
“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” [Rousseau – The Social Contract]
Even if not consciously aware of it, the electorate’s vote for Brexit last week marked the first step in redressing this inherent flaw in Britain’s representative democracy. For years white working class (who in the end constitute the bulk of Britain’s population) concerns over austerity, job security, housing and immigration had found themselves dismissed as so much “indolent chav whining” or as “bigotry/racism”. Their decision to quit the EU should be viewed then not so much a rebellion against a distant and unaccountable Brussels elite (though undoubtedly in part it was) as much a rebellion against a Westminster elite advocating a continuation of the status quo – one in which they found themselves relegated to bystanders in the determination of their own future. It was perhaps not quite the revolutionary awakening of the lumpenproletariat Marx had in mind but maked a significant change in psyche regardless. Needless to say departing the EU will prove not to be the panacea many had hoped for yet nonetheless it represents something of a line in the sand, a statement of intent: “we the little people have had enough of being told what’s best for us”. Or something like that.
Perhaps nothing better highlights the stark divide between Westminster and the hoi polloi as the current heightening standoff between Jeremy Corbyn and the Parliamentary Labour Party. That a leader with a mandate from 60% of the rank-and-file membership should find himself opposed by 80% of his MPs represents in a microcosm the dysfunctional state of British democracy. It is also emblematic of a wider, global struggle for a more participatory and consultative politics. One where the common citizen finds himself no longer a hapless marionette subject to the whim of those purporting to have his best interests at heart.
Of course it would be remiss not to point out that 48% did not vote for Brexit but yet that does not necessarily mean they did not share many of the same concerns as the Leavers. I can only intuit that for many Remainers a leave vote did not present itself as the most efficacious remedy – a case of not wanting to cut off your nose to spite your face.
For all the abundance of expert analyses, only time will tell how Britain will fare outside of the European Union or if indeed it actually ends up leaving at all (the referendum result is not legally binding). What is certain, however, is the clamour for greater popular participation in political decision making is set to grow; posterity will record the Brexit vote as the opening salvo of what might prove to be one of the epoch’s defining struggles.
May the peace and blessing of Allah (swt) be upon Sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.