Which People Have Spoken?

The Problem of The Demos and Why I Want Us To Fuck This Brexit Thing Right Off

by Simon Indelicate

Where do you even start writing about Brexit? I've wanted to put something down since that stupid day last June - but every time I start it goes off the rails by the end of the first paragraph and I just start listing the best insults I can think of to call you. Like idiot, for example, or wanker, or stupid, fucking, pasty future-destroying c...

Start again.

The problem, I guess, is that there's no arguing with you. No convincing to be done. You've heard the arguments, and the competing facts, and you don't care anymore. I don't either - your mind is made up; my mind is made up. You think the vote last year means that we're leaving the EU. Now you think that the vote last year means that we're leaving the single market and the customs union.

I don't think it should mean that - I think we should ignore you and fuck Brexit right off. But it doesn't matter that I think that - you've won. It's happening.

There's no comment box under this, and I don't encourage you to share your thoughts on it. Feel free, obviously, but I won't be reading what you say. It wasn't my job to write this and I don't care if it generates clicks or engagement on social media. I kind of hope it doesn't, actually. I'd be happier if it was only read by a few people who agree with me and they all said well done and I got to sleep untroubled by your annoying disagreement.

It is a howl into the void. And by void, I mean you, you fucking stupid Brexit fucking c...

Start again.

I think that we should take your vote for Brexit and fuck it right off.

I think some centrist Tory or other should go on TV and say that your views have been noted and that they've spoken to a slovenly Belgian and arranged for some kind of meaningless stitch up on immigration and banana bendiness that will recognise your expressed wishes in the most patronisingly ineffective way possible and then I want everything to go back to normal while you slink off into a resentful sulk about how the elites have done you over like always.

You would, too. You might protest, a bit. But you believed the elites and the MSM and the illuminati were running everything before and you didn't do anything - if it turned out you were right it wouldn't change anything. You'd just go back to being a grumpy, boring old bastard.

That won't happen. There isn't an illuminati and we're definitely leaving.

But when someone like me says something on the internet and you pour out of the woodwork to snarl at us about how we don't understand democracy and what about the will of the people, eh? You don't have any respect for us or our vote! and all of that stuff. I want you to know that you're basically right - I don't respect you or your vote.

But it doesn't matter. You won. We're leaving.

Still though, there's something I do want to tell you, because in all the (fully reciprocated) animosity, I think there's something you don't get about this argument.

In the past, when we've voted on things there has usually been a sense, following the vote, that things will soon go back to being alright again. That is democracy - you lose sometimes, and that's OK. It's more than democracy, in fact, it's how we survive as social animals - Kim off Kim and Aggie falls out with Speidi over nominations, but in the morning they recognise their common humanity and that they have to live in the house together for at least another week so they hug and make up and the terrible things they said get forgotten.

For all your invective, I think that you think Brexit is like that. That there was a fight, and we lost it, and eventually we'll get over that and we'll hug. We are, after all, your grandchildren, customers, mates, family. You put that vote into the same category as an election - a debate conducted among the eternal British - and one day we shall smile again.

But I want to tell you this one thing: There are no hugs coming. it will never, ever, be OK. Something has broken between us.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the one I think is most insoluble and permanent comes down to a simple question-

You say, like Theresa May says, and for some moronic reason of his own Jeremy Corbyn says, that Brexit is the will of the people - but we say: 'which people are you taking about?'

In political philosophy there is an established idea called 'the problem of the demos'. You can google scholar it and come up with some difficult papers probing the depths of it, but the quick version is this:

Democratic legitimacy requires that there be a line drawn around a group of lads with a somewhat fixed identity who, in some intangible way, are willing to recognise that they constitute a 'people'. In order for democracy to have any point at all, there must be enough people in that group that they have serious disagreements with each other that can be settled by democratic means - but there can't be so many people that there is no sense of shared identity.

'Demos' is the greek word for people and is used to mean the coherent body of voters who we can safely say have the right to decide things for themselves by majority vote.

You might have heard the pro-brexit side talking about the 'no-demos hypothesis' - the (quite convincing, as it happens) idea that the lack of a coherent European People rendered the existence of European institutions democratically illegitimate - especially when the English-speaking peoples are understood as having a distinct legal and political culture which is incompatible with certain continental norms.

The problem of the demos is, however, older and broader than that. It gets to a fundamental problem in establishing what is and isn't democratically legitimate, especially as it interacts with other principles of civilisation like 'self-determination' - the idea (written into international law) that peoples have the right the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status without interference.

What is not written into International law is what, exactly, a 'people' is. We seem to recognise that the Scottish are a people enough to have had a referendum on independence - but are the Cornish? Are the residents of Slough? Of Transnistria? Of the Ukraine? Of the Arab nations created overnight by the pen strokes of Sykes-Picot?

What if an overwhelming majority of the Sloughvians (?) wanted to make public stonings legal? By what right would the rest of the UK deny them? We'd probably be OK with them making parking in the taxi rank by the Queensmere centre illegal - but we'd never let them legalise heroin - so I guess we'd say that Sloughvians aren't a people, but the British are. But why?

What about Texans? Would a vote for secession among Texans be legitimate? What if the residents of Austin were 100% against it? What about the American South? Was their secession legitimate? The victors of the civil war have written into history that it wasn't - but that was half a continent's worth of people…

The point is not to answer any of these questions but to demonstrate that they are not settled. Identifying a people involves drawing a line on a map in the way that feels most comfortable - but there is absolutely nothing about doing so that is permanent, that is unequivocal or that is conclusive. The lines we draw on maps are, by nature, compromises not facts.

The majority of Northern Irish people who traditionally favour remaining part of the UK are a small majority if we draw a line around the six counties, a huge majority if we draw a line around the british mainland plus six counties and a minority if we draw what would initially appear to be the most sensible line, the simple one around the Irish Island itself. What does the principle of self-determination have to say about that? The answer is written in blood across the twentieth century.

A 'People' is not defined because it is necessary that the definition be flexible - you just know one when you see it.

So you say that Brexit is the will of the people. You draw your line neatly around your island plus a bit of the other one and that's who you mean.

But I don't. And my friends don't. And, to various extents, 48% of those who can bothered to vote don't either.

The Demos we are a part of is the European one that clever Brexit advocates say doesn't exist.

We are a demos because we instinctively know one another as trading partners, employers, employees, friends, and heirs to a shared history. We feel no deep kinship with the little towns that we did everything to move away from as soon as we could. We don't laugh at the nasty jokes that are told in them.

It sounds (and probably is) snooty - but we are not content for our interpersonal relationships to be determined by accidents of geography. We know that we have more in common with other snooty wankers in Berlin and Copenhagen and Rome than we do with you. You are right when you say we're up ourselves and think we're too good for you, we are and do. For us to feel like we belong at all we have to find other people who are as annoying as us.

Within our demos we find common ground and build political alliances. We associate with continent-wide movements. Lots of us agree that the institutions of the EU need reform - but our sense of belonging to a people doesn't really have that much to do with them. We're European because (quite literally for those of us under 42) we were born European - it's as intrinsic to us as being English (and let's be honest, that's what you mean) is to you.

That's why we're not over it. We have a sense in our minds of where we may freely roam. It is written into our experience of life that freely selling things to other Europeans is something we do because it's our birthright - not something that we do subject to the whim of authority. It feels physically illegitimate to us that any vote could strip us of these rights. It feels unconstitutional in a bodily sense.

So when we hear that the people have spoken, it does not feel undemocratic to us that we don't buy it for a second. It wasn't our people: Most of them weren't asked.

Our people are Europeans and your poxy provincial mandate doesn't come close to the bar that would need clearing if we are to have our birthright stripped from us.

It's not a majority of us, it's a majority of you. It's only democratic to support it if you accept that we are only British. We don't accept it. We've been European too long.

I don't honestly think that that many of us even knew that this was how we felt. I didn't. If I considered my identity at all, it was only to reassure myself that I had no interest in basing any politics on it. But here we are, you're taking the line around who we are and forcing us to redraw it - smaller and more pickily - so that it matches yours. No resolvable arguments about the economy or policy or institutions or regulations need to come into it - when we think about being trapped in here with you we feel queasy and furious and it doesn't ever go away.

I know that the no-demos hypothesis has some merit. I know that you don't feel European. I know that you see THE BRITISH PEOPLE as an obvious and easily identifiable group, some of whom, unfortunately, can't stop moaning.

I know that you will never feel European and that, as such, the idea of - say - a European superstate would never have worked.

If we were to say to you that you were no longer British - that you were now only an EU citizen with the status of Britain downgraded to that of an American state under a federal government - you'd feel violated and sickened at what had been stripped from you.

I know that. I don't think we'd ever have done it to you.

But that's how we feel. It's not disappointment that we lost an argument - it's as deep for us as it would be for you. You think that you felt just as bad being part of the EU, but you didn't. Being in the EU never took anything fundamental away from you - even if you say it did.

Maybe there was some sense that your culture was being eroded by Polish shops? There was probably a small, but real, amount of wage depreciation from competitive immigrant labour. Maybe there was a different attitude to the rule of law on the continent that made your dealings with the regulatory infrastructure frustrating? But fundamental? Nah, mate, you can fuck off with that. These were annoyances and quibbles. Things to lobby against at worst.

What we had going - awkwardly, imperfectly - was a compromise that allowed us and you to co-exist. We were in the EU, but the EU was only a union, not a state - it didn't go around saying the Queen wasn't the queen and it was cool with you keeping your nice money that you like. It let you be British and it let us be European. It was a good solution to our problem. The fact that there were two peoples, two demoi, living on this island didn't render the island dysfunctional because we had a constitutional setup that allowed us both to be largely, if not entirely, fulfilled in our day to day experience of citizenship.

You've broken that. You've thrown it away and it will never, ever, ever be OK.

Like I say, I'm not trying to convince you of anything. I'm not arguing for staying in the EU. To us we just obviously should have done and all our arguments are retro-fitted to this intrinsic fact about how we see ourselves and the world.

I'm just telling you, we are democrats. As long as the minority are protected from majority tyranny and as long as the idea of democracy itself is preserved for future generations, we believe that we should do what the majority of the people think. But on matters of our European identity, we do not see ourselves as just part of the British people, we see ourselves as part of a people who stretch from Lisbon to Bucharest; and we think a majority of us do not want to see the EU broken apart; and we think our majority trumps yours.

And you don't. And there's no solving it. And it won't be OK, ever. And that's all, really.

(You stupid fucking Brexit fucking cu...)