A. C. Grayling: ‘Brexit is starting to look a lot like a coup’

Professor A. C. Grayling: "The Remain campaign is by far the angriest I have ever seen in British politics." [Full Circle]

Brexit is politically illegitimate, and when the chickens come home to roost, reality and pragmatism will kick in and the Remainers will win the day, Professor A. C. Grayling said in an interview with EURACTIV.com.

Professor A.C. Grayling is a philosopher, author, broadcaster and master of the New College of the Humanities. His recent books include The God Argument, Ideas That Matter andLiberty in the Age of Terror.

In Brussels at the invitation of Full Circle, Grayling spoke to EURACTIV.com’s Samuel White.

The British public voted to leave, so why do you not believe the government has a mandate to take the UK out of the European Union?

The thing that really makes my hair stand on end is when people use phrases like ‘the British public’ or ‘the people’. Just look at the sheer numbers. Firstly, you have to accept that the franchise for the EU referendum was restricted. It excluded 16 and 17-year-olds, ex-pats who had been abroad for more than 15 years and EU citizens working and paying taxes in the UK. These three groups of people, by the way, would probably have the most material interest in the outcome of an EU referendum and they were excluded. This was a deliberate, conscious decision, which has the smell of gerrymandering about it.

So on a restricted electorate, the 51.9% vote for Leave represents 37% of that total electorate, representing about 26% of the total population.

When people use expressions like ‘the people have spoken’ or ‘the British public has voted to leave’ and so on, they are talking nonsense. This is a very narrow interpretation of the British people.

And the nature of the referendum bill makes the outcome politically illegitimate. For a start, MPs were told that it was advisory only, a fact that was repeated in the parliamentary debate in June 2015. Therefore, they saw no need to build in a safety bar, such as a super-majority requirement.

So because of the nature of the referendum, the restricted franchise and the fact that only 37% of that electorate voted to leave – not to mention all the well-documented distortions, falsehoods and false promises of the Leave campaign – it is constitutionally improper. As far as any rational, dispassionate discussion of the matter goes, that is an open and shut case: there is no mandate for Brexit.

I know you believe it is not too late to change course and avoid the Brexit iceberg altogether. But concretely, how can this happen? Isn’t it just wishful thinking to think that the Remain campaign can turn the ship around at this stage?

Just watch the trend in the polls as an indicator that sentiment is changing. The latest YouGov poll published on 27 April shows that more people now think Brexit is a mistake than not. And this is a trend that will continue as the mess, the muddle and the damage become more and more apparent, as they are day by day.

The Remain campaign, by the way, is by far the most determined, committed, angry and resolute campaign I have ever seen in British politics. Even including the poll tax riots. So the way I see it, either Brexit will not happen at all, it will simply be stopped, or it will happen but in a kind of fudged, partial way. This will mean that getting the UK fully back into the EU will be the next step and a very real possibility. And I make the very confident prediction that in ten, 12, maximum 15 years from now, the UK will be securely back in the EU as a full member.

What I do worry about are the wasted years in between: how long is it going to take and how long will we have to put up with this damage before things change?

If you look at the rhetoric that is being put out by both Labour and the Conservatives at the moment, both are using the phrase “a deep and special relationship”. I’m hoping that the EU will stick to its guns. Both Angela Merkel and Guy Verhofstadt have said “if you are out, you are out. You are not going to get a lot of concessions from us”.

They are not interested in making it easy for the UK to leave because they don’t want anyone else to leave. So to them I say be tough with the UK, don’t give away any concessions, don’t give them a soft, fudged Brexit. Because when you hear people like Keir Starmer and Theresa May saying they want a deep and special relationship, what they mean is that they want all the advantages of membership while pretending to their voters that we are not really members.

But wouldn’t the EU lose a lot of credibility if it allowed the UK to cause all this trouble only to welcome it back with open arms once it had realised its mistake?

That I don’t see.

I have seen statements from Verhofstadt and others saying that if the UK changed its mind it would be perfectly welcome to stay. After all, we haven’t left yet. The real question is whether or not the triggering of Article 50 is revocable. We have already seen public statements by members of the European Parliament and the Commission saying that it is. The person who drafted that part of the Lisbon Treaty says it is.

So if it is revocable it is not really up to the EU to say whether or not the UK can come back in because it hasn’t left yet. All London would do, would be to say sorry and take its letter of resignation back. And if it is legally permissible to do that then that is the end of the story.

So reversing Brexit would be more politically difficult than legally impossible.

Yes, although I am not sure that it would even be all that politically difficult. When all the chickens really come home to roost and people have started realising what a bad mistake it is, reality and pragmatism will start to kick in and some way will be found of either stopping Brexit or of so organising things that we can get back in in the future.

Our parliamentarians are pusillanimous: all they care about is following public sentiment. If public sentiment says leave, we’d better leave. If public sentiment says stay, we’d better stay. If, in 18 months or two years there is a significant majority of the public that believes Brexit was a terrible mistake, you can bet your bottom dollar that the parliamentarians will find some way of keeping us in.

How would you respond to people who say that your energy and talents would be put to better use ensuring the UK got the best possible deal out of Brexit, rather than continuing the fight against the odds to stop it?

Nonsense. There is no better use for my time or energy. That deals with that question.

So do you really believe that there can only be losers from Brexit? You described yourself as an optimist; can you not see any silver lining at all?

The only way you could take an optimistic view would be if you were a member of that small, influential group of people who hold the powers behind the scenes: one of the ones who would benefit from Brexit. These are the people who would really like the UK to crash out of the EU and who would regard a soft Brexit as a betrayal. The people to check out on this are the ones like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who are on record talking about regulation. Rees-Mogg’s big complaint is that membership of the EU has meant that we have become entangled in a tremendous spaghetti of regulation. And the point about regulation is that it is expensive. It raises costs for business and it means that tax levels need to be high.

If we move to a low-tax, low-regulation economy, we won’t have the tax revenue to pay for the National Health Service, a first-rate state education service, a welfare safety net or environmental protection. And the people who don’t care about those four things are the ones who have private health insurance, send their kids to private schools, are too rich to worry about the welfare safety net and don’t care about clean city air or clean water because they can afford to spend their time somewhere else.

So these are the people who benefit, and they want Brexit because they want a low-tax economy. The only way we would attract businesses or inward investment in that kind of situation is if we turned the UK into a kind of Singapore on the doorstep of the EU. That is the real aim of the hard-line Brexiteers. And if people in the country woke up to that they would see they have been like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Sovereignty was another major pillar of the Brexit campaign. But in a globalised world, what is sovereignty and why do some people want it so badly?

Sovereignty is a completely empty notion. It is a piece of pompous rhetoric that Leavers used along with the other familiar tropes like ‘take back control’ and ‘faceless Brussels bureaucrats’. The sentiment it is meant to conjure up is that foreigners are running the show and we don’t like it. Appallingly, in that dreadful White Paper that came out the day after the parliamentary debate in Westminster, it said that in fact, parliament has always been sovereign in the UK but complained that sometimes it has not felt like it. So parliament is sovereign. It said so itself, and yet it treated 37% of the electorate voting to leave as if they had given parliament a mandate to leave the EU.

What they should have done was to look at the outcome of the advisory referendum and say ‘no, this is not in our interest’. But with the way in which things have been handled since the referendum, with the lack of debate, the way the government has pushed to get on with things before people start to notice they are making it up as they go along, it is starting to look a lot like a coup.

Finally, what do you think of Nigel Farage as a person?

I think he’s a bounder. He’s a cad. He’s an embarrassment. I cringe at the thought of how he behaved like a football hooligan and a lager lout in the European Parliament. What an advertisement for the best of the English character. I have no time for him at all. I think he is an embarrassment and a waste of space.

Is he the worst of the lot?

Oh no, I think the whole UKIP lot are all just as bad, Arron Banks and so on. There is something so fundamentally dishonest about a public school stockbroker-turned-MEP claiming to be fighting for the common man against the elites, and then behaving in that sort of graceless, undignified way, inflaming what lurks behind the xenophobia that they are stoking up, which, in the end, is just racism. It is the very ugly face of politics.

Subscribe to our newsletters