Brexit: the British dilemma


The Referendum in 2016 took place under intense pressure from Eurosceptic, hard line Brexiteers of the Conservative Party. The result was not a landslide victory – 17.4 million voted in favour of Leave (52%) and 16.1 million in favour of Remain (48%) – but a narrow 4% margin in favour of leaving.

It is significant for all of us to reflect upon how the Referendum was conducted by the politicians. The Leave camp, headed by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and other diehard Brexiteers used the medieval rhetoric of enslavement, colonialism, take back control, independence. They portrayed the EU as a monster and enemy, as greedy Europeans, and promised the British public £350 million a week for our NHS.

The nation divided into two camps almost overnight. The hostile rhetoric and febrile environment – largely created by hard Brexiteers –contributed at least to physical and verbal attacks on EU citizens, ethnic minorities and immigrants in general. It culminated in a barbaric and brutal assassination of Labour MP, Jo Cox at her own constituency by a far-right extremist. Even the judges of the High Court following the determination of R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the EU [2016] EWHC 2768 (Admin) were called the ‘enemies of the people’ and subjected to hatred and abuse by right wing media.

Several MPs supporting Remain, and particularly women MPs, are now under 24 hour police protection. Surely this does not reflect the British society which is a role model for the free world upholding democracy, rule of law and independence of judiciary and promoting human rights.

As a member of the Windrush generation I find this whole episode alarming and heart breaking. I witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s the ‘dog whistle’ behaviour of the far right and Enoch Powell’s rhetoric of the rivers of blood speech in 1968. Racism, xenophobia and discrimination so toxic that after the brutal killing of Stephen Lawrence, Lord Justice McPherson concluded that there had been institutionalised racism in Britain. The succeeding governments tackled it head on but the ugly face of xenophobia has reappeared in British society.

Is the EU a bureaucratic monstrosity seeking to consume the free nations of Europe? It is true that the EU is a body that, whilst holding an impressive level of democracy for a non-state actor, does not compare easily to its member states’ domestic arrangements for direct democracy. But this does not mean that the EU is anti-democratic. On the contrary, it offers member states greater opportunity to get involved in the legislative process and every chance to block legislation.

The EU in fact plays an important role in diplomacy and works to foster stability, security and prosperity, democracy, fundamental freedom and the rule of law at international level. Yet it is viewed by many British Brexiteers as a bureaucratic and undemocratic monster.

In short, the EU is like any other international organisation, such as the UN, NATO, UNESCO, with the aim to achieve international peace and security and well-being of its member states. Britain, being a powerful member equipped with knowledge, expertise and economic and military power can reform the system. But it surely is a cowardly act to run away from such a global body which unites Europe and avoids further wars among neighbours.

Of course the leaders of the Leave vote did not have a plan how to get out of the 46 years of relationship with the EU. David Cameron resigned immediately after the Referendum. Theresa May, the Home Secretary succeeded him as the new Prime Minister, lost her deal three times in Parliament and had to resign, a victim of her own red lines.

Parliament cannot accept No Deal which will damage our economy. It will affect the jobs and livelihoods of millions of British people – which in a way betrays the Referendum result. The only option available to Parliament and the nation is to conclude a compromise deal with the EU, which should be subject to a confirmatory vote by the people.

Since there is an impasse in Parliament for the last three years, it is logical the matter should be put back to the people who are now better informed about the merits and demerits of leaving Europe. This is more democratic than ignoring them. Critics might say the result would be the same. However, it could equally be said that it is undemocratic not to hold a confirmatory vote, in the present climate.

Finally, a word of caution to our next PM and the political establishment: if the British economy is damaged owing to the implementation of a No Deal Brexit, those who are promised to get a dividend from Brexit would be worst affected. The immigrants and ethnic minorities would continue to be targeted by right wing politicians and certain sections of the right wing media. The ugly face of xenophobia, physical abuse and intimidation would resurface in Britain.

Brexit must be settled with the British public again for the restoration of democracy and regaining public confidence in politics and politicians.

Anis Rahman OBE, Barrister, 12 Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn

Author details: 
Anis Rahman OBE

Anis Rahman OBE is a practising barrister and former magistrate who also served as an adviser to the Home Secretary on race equality and community affairs. He was a Whitehall civil servant for 18 years and a trustee of Toynbee Hall in East London for 12 years, where he helped establish a free legal advice clinic for disadvantaged Bangladeshi women. In 2012, Anis was granted the Freedom of the City of London and in 2013, awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law by the University of Westminster.