The crisis of democracy

No to a second referendum, writes Steve Freeman. Yes to a ratification referendum

Humiliating Brexit deal risks a descent into Weimar Britain,” argues Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. He says:

… over the next year or two we could witness the emergence of a rancid, angry Britain: a society riven by domestic divisions and economic difficulties, let down by its ruling classes, fetid with humiliation and resentment. Any such country is a danger both to itself and to its neighbours (July 27).

Is this a panic attack or is he pointing to our direction of travel? In last week’s letters page I argued that we should strongly oppose a second referendum and support a ratification referendum. The call for a second referendum seeks to rerun the original 2016 consultation on leaving the European Union. In theory this could have happened at any time since Theresa May declared that “Brexit means Brexit”.

By contrast there can be no ratification referendum until there is something to ratify. So far there is nothing but intentions, hopes and circles to be squared. Although there is a timetable to conclude a deal with the EU, as rail travellers know only too well if there is snow, the rails get too hot or there are leaves on the line, then the Brexit train could be cancelled or delayed.

If the British crown can do a deal with the European Commission then it will have to be ratified either by the crown or parliament or the people. There is no alternative. So I believe the working class should be able to vote on it. Perhaps the CPGB’s Jack Conrad believes the crown should ratify its own deal? More likely he accepts parliamentary ratification.

British liberals, like Tory MP Justin Greening and now Peter Mandelson, want a second referendum to reverse the 2016 vote. They now realise that they must hitch their ‘remain’ bandwagon to the democratic demand for a ballot on ratification. Instead of a neutral question like ‘Do you support this disgusting anti-working class Tory deal?’, the liberals hope to add: ‘Oh and by the way, would you like to vote to stay in the EU as well?’

No democrat should have any truck with Greening and Mandelson, trying to exploit the democratic demand for a ratification referendum with their damaging and divisive attempt to repeat the 2016 Brexit vote. This is the background to this debate in the Weekly Worker - the crisis brought about by the British exit from the EU.

Hence I want to shift the focus from the general theory of referenda onto the Brexit crisis which provoked Jack to bring out the CPGB general theory of principled opposition to referenda, as against the democratic slogan, ‘No to a second referendum, yes to a ratification referendum’. Jack has argued that I am lining up with the liberals, but I claim that he is lining up with the reactionaries.

This response to Jack Conrad’s ‘Tactics, principles and willing dupes’ (July 19) identifies four interconnected themes:

1. Referenda in general, or the general theory of referenda.

2. The slogan of a second/repeat referendum versus a ratification referendum.

3. The crisis of democracy and political struggle in the UK (2016-18).

4. The class nature of the liberals and democrats.

There are no solid walls between these four elements. So far this debate has concentrated on general theory and ranged across the views of Kautsky, Gramsci and Lenin, etc. In essence Jack argues for opposition to all referenda on principle. I am arguing there is no principle and it has to be assessed case by case. There is much more to be said on this, but not in this article.

I want to change the focus onto the ‘crisis of democracy’ and conditions today. The issue of a future referendum is directly connected to the EU referendum in 2016. There is an umbilical cord between 2016 and the demand for a ‘second’/‘repeat’ or alternatively a ‘ratification’ referendum. We can only make more sense of this debate by going back to before 2016.

Crisis of democracy

The UK has long had an evolving problem with its democratic and constitutional arrangements. Since the 1980s there has been a neoliberal assault on the British social and constitutional monarchy. Margaret Thatcher waged war against the working class, Irish nationalists (Sinn Fein/IRA) and imposed the poll tax first on Scotland alongside free-market deregulation.

By the mid-1990s opposition to Tory policies created a ‘crisis of democracy’, which appeared to resolve itself with major constitutional changes. These involved compromises and settlements like the Good Friday agreement, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the Human Rights Act. The danger of democratic revolution was kept at bay, as the relations within the British union and with the European Union appeared to stabilise.

All this was to change with the massive social disruption with the banking crisis and austerity politics after 2008. In 2014 the Scottish referendum brought the UK to the brink of democratic revolution. Anglo-British unionism led by David Cameron and Gordon Brown carried the day. The union with Scotland was ‘saved’. In 2016 Cameron decided to gamble on repeating the trick with a referendum on EU membership.

His intention was to defeat the Tory right and Ukip and establish his government more firmly than ever. It has to be noted that nobody on the socialist left called for this EU referendum. It was a Tory referendum, called by the Tories to resolve a dispute in the Tory Party. It is not necessary to oppose all referenda on principle to recognise the dangers posed by this one.

Before the 2016 referendum I argued that an ‘all-UK remain’ or an ‘all-UK leave’ would strengthen Cameron or Johnson and Ukip. Neither of these extremes would benefit the working class. However, there was one outcome that had ‘revolutionary’ implications: if Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales voted ‘remain’ and England voted ‘leave’ this would begin to prise open the UK constitution.

This outcome would break the mould of UK politics. It would lead step by step to constitutional paralysis and political polarisation. Like every ‘revolutionary’ crisis, it could as easily have a reactionary, authoritarian outcome as to bring forth the long awaited democratic revolution, which began in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and was taken forward in Scotland until its defeat in 2014.

The Brexit revolution would ‘make Britain great again’ as a reinvigorated global imperial power. Yet it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it might bring a united Ireland and a Scottish republic. Little England would be forced into a radical rethink about what it was for.

The 2016 referendum was a clash of national identities between reactionary Anglo-British nationalism and the more democratic and European identities of Irish and Scottish nationalism. Brexit is thus a double threat to both the British union and the European Union, on which English conservative hegemony rests. This is why the Tories are facing a deep crisis, the like of which we have not seen before.


In 2016 the CPGB called for its default position of ‘actively’ boycotting the EU referendum. I made a case in the Weekly Worker that the interests of democratic revolution and the European working class required workers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to vote ‘remain’.

Despite the logic that an English ‘Brexit’ would make a revolutionary breach in the walls of the old constitution, I did not call for a ‘leave’ vote in England. In the broad context of capitalist development, leaving the EU was reactionary. Hence I called for a mass abstention - in England no worker should support Cameron’s ‘remain’ or the Johnson and Farage ‘leave’.

Had there been mass abstention in England with less than 50% voting, it would have been a pyrrhic victory for either side of the Tories. Thirteen million people did abstain, including me. But, as we know, reactionary English nationalism proved to be a powerful mobilising force. In England 15 million voted to leave and 13 million to remain.

The case for the working class in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to vote ‘remain’ and in England to abstain seems strange to anybody who thinks like a liberal or left reformist. If you are a Euro-Corbynist then it is daft. Perhaps Jack thought this is an example of an “eccentric and foolish” argument.

However, if you are thinking of the advancing ‘democratic revolution’ then it should not be too difficult to figure out. The basic message is that the national question and the European question are not separate, but bound up as one. If anybody doubted that in 2016, they have surely woken up by now, with the Tories’ efforts to square the circle on the Irish border.

The reformists ask whether workers will have more jobs or pay or rights by being in or out of the EU. The perspective of democratic revolution means looking at the whole picture of political, constitutional and economic struggles. I can thank Jack for highlighting Lenin’s approach in November 1916, where he advises Swiss social democrats to use the “parliamentary tribune and the right to initiative and referendum” in a revolutionary, “not a reformist manner” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, Moscow 1977, p143).

Brexit ‘revolution’

Jack says:

The 2016 referendum on the EU did not advance the interests of the working class one iota. On the contrary, the result was a triumph for backward-looking illusions, fake promises about the financing of the national health service, anti-migrant bigotry and narrow nationalism.

I agree. Cameron never intended it to help the working class, while reactionary English or Anglo-British nationalism exploited the Tory referendum for its own benefits.

However, this still suggests that Jack is describing the situation as it looks in England, not from Scotland or Ireland. The referendum did not create reactionary English nationalism, but brought it into the open. What he says takes no account of the unintended consequences of this political struggle - the fall of Cameron and May’s early general election. There is much more to come.

If I had to think of an imperfect analogy, it would be Spain in 1931. The working class voted in local elections to end the monarchy and the king abdicated. Almost by accident Spain became a republic. (In case anybody thinks I had not noticed, the UK is still a monarchy). Yet for a while life carried on as normal, before politics began to polarise.

The UK is still a full member of the EU. We have had intensifying conflict within the Tory Party and the ruling class over how to handle the Brexit crisis. England has been deeply divided. But the most important fact is the deep division in the working class between ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’. Jeremy Corbyn has clearly recognised this, as has the Labour Party. The question of a ratification referendum is about the unity of a divided working class.


Two years after the referendum the crisis remains unresolved. The mess gets worse by the day. Nobody has any solutions. The Tories are in crisis and the anti-Semitism row deepens. The working class remains deeply divided over Brexit. One week, 20,000 march with Tommy Robinson and Ukip. The next, 100,000 people march for a ‘people’s referendum’. This is not ‘normal’ and it is not finished.

Recently Vernon Bogdanor, a ‘constitutional expert’, argued that “Brexit broke parliament. Now only the people can fix it” (The Guardian July 24). He says there is a crisis, in which parliament is paralysed. The 2017 hung parliament has now become fragmented. The gap between people and parliament has become deeper. There is no majority for any of the kinds of Brexit on offer. Parliament cannot overcome its internal divisions.

The Tory right, Ukip and the neo-fascists have exploited the 2016 EU referendum to claim a democratic mandate. It is a powerful argument, which is enabling them to emerge from the fringe towards a new centre ground. They have got their hooks into that section of the working class which voted for Brexit, hoping it would be a solution for life’s many problems.

For this section of the working class the great hopes invested in Brexit cannot and will not be delivered. The right will become the voice of the Great Betrayal, with the possibility of mass mobilisation. There is nothing that can take the fire out of this situation and address the divisions over the EU in the working class except a democratic mandate. There is only one answer to that - a ratification referendum - which both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ workers recognise as democratic.

The Brexit result has created a great chasm by dividing the working class down the middle. On one side are reactionaries and ultra-lefts, who are opposed to remaining in the EU and now oppose another referendum. On the other side are the liberals and democrats. The liberals want a second or repeat referendum and the democrats call for a ratification referendum.

This merely hints at the question: What is the class difference between the liberals and democrats and what are their respective programmes?