Why revoking Article 50 or suchlike would make me really really angry

I voted leave in the 2016 referendum, for reasons outlined here, and would vote the same again. What has happened since then has in my mind rather served to confirm my reasoning, and indeed emphasis the need for accountability in some nearer places too. Obviously a number of people disagree with the result – the majority of MPs for one – and a number of these figures – the Liberal Democrats as a whole, key figures amongst Conservatives and Labour and so on – have proposed revoking Article 50 (our notice to leave) altogether, or holding a second referendum (which for some reason they dub a “people’s vote”; I suspect the hand of Tony Blair in this, since he liked to add “people’s” to all sorts of things in an attempt to generate support) or a “confirmatory vote”.

The issue has become highly contentious, and there seem to be some who think if the whole thing can be undone, such disagreements would disappear. For those who liked or benefited from the political status quo prior to the referendum, such is likely to be highly attractive. It is also impossible. Setting aside the arguments over Brexit itself, what I want to communicate is why I personally find the suggestion to revoke article 50 or similar so objectionable, and why in many respects this issue is now far bigger than Brexit itself.

What should not be forgotten is that the referendum itself, voted for by an overwhelming majority of Parliament, was presented to the British public as:

This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.

Upon the result, many MPs now committed to revocation or to a second referendum spoke about the need to respect and implement the referendum result (including luminaries such as Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna). Many of them subsequently stood on an election manifesto in the 2017 election promising to implement the result, the Conservative members explicitly on a manifesto that no deal would be preferred to a bad deal.

So when MPs argue for revocation, they are explicitly arguing that Parliament should break a promise it made to the British public to respect the public’s vote, one that many of the members subsequently remade by the platforms they stood upon for the 2017 election. Some might argue that legislatively, the referendum was “non-binding”. But that doesn’t change the commitment made to the electorate, the assurance that it was there decision. To argue this is to confuse legality with legitimacy. It would be legal, but it would be illegitimate. And Parliament’s authority to make laws for the rest of us depends on its legitimacy.

To revoke article 50 would in short be to void my vote; it would effectively disenfranchise me by making my vote of null effect. This strikes at the very heart of the implied social contract by which we give Parliament any right to rule over us at all. We permit Parliament to fill this role because we are assured we have a say in what happens, via our exercise of our vote. Thus even if a vote doesn’t go our way, the result is legitimate if we had the opportunity to have our say. This has been the situation for most of my life: there are very few decisions the Blair government made that I agreed with. But while I disagreed with that government and its decisions, I could give a broader consent to the legitimacy of that government, because I’d had the opportunity to vote but was sadly on the losing side.

That calculus changes if it appears that my vote is to be ignored if it is on the winning side: then it appears my vote is a fraud, designed to give the illusion of a say, but to be ignored lest there be any danger of me having an actual say. It breaks the implied social contract upon which our system of government depends. To attempt to defend any such moves on the idea of Parliamentary supremacy is to ignore the question of why should we permit that supremacy. What gives Parliament the right to rule over us? Until now, it has been that it has, imperfectly perhaps, reflected our communal decisions. But if my vote is to be outright rejected, then Parliament doesn’t reflect or allow for my input at all. It is, perhaps ironically, making a new claim to a “divine right”, but in this case a divine right of MPs. A right I must reject. As I must likewise reject any supposed “government of national unity” that takes as its starting point excluding the votes of the largest vote in British history. They would be no government of mine, and I’d reject their right to rule over me.

It is particularly infuriating when many of those pushing for revocation within and without Parliament have been seemingly happy to go along with the system so long as the results were congenial to upper middle-class politicians and lawyers. It is a seeming double standard that I have had to consent to results I disagree with most of my adult life, but the moment a result is reached they disagree with it is the result that is to be dispensed with. I say a seeming double standard, because in reality it sets up a new single standard: they get to decide, whereas the rest of us will have things decided for us. We are to be effectively disenfranchised, while they effectively enthroned as our new masters.

What then of a second referendum or a “confirmatory vote”? Note again the double standard. The Blair government, for instance (and indeed feel free to use the example of any post-war government of your choice), introduced sweeping changes to public life and law. Do we get a confirmatory vote on all of those? Why not? If some argue that the referendum result was too close (despite having an outright majority of votes cast, by over a million votes), then what do we say of the Blair government with 43.2% (1997), 40.7% (2001), and 35.2% (2005) of votes cast, i.e. no majority of votes at all. No British government since 1935 has had a majority of votes. Once again, my vote is to be subject to confirmation, while their vote is to be implemented without question. Of course, the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have already admitted that were a second referendum produce a leave result, they’d ignore that too.

In a democracy, the ultimate civic right and the ultimate means of redress is the ability to vote. It is this that allows Citizens to reign in their governments and to secure their interests and all other rights. Conversely, establishing a principle by which votes may be ignored if they go against the desires of the influential is to effectively strip people of that civic right and render effectively meaningless that means of redress. And so I ask of you, if MPs and others are to ignore my vote and render it null and void, what means of redress remain open to me?

A False Quotation

I was reading the news, as one does, and came across an article talking about the implications of Israel’s current political gridlock during a period of increasing conflict between Iran and the likes of Saudi Arabia. Such articles, of course, tend to attract those who argue that the Israeli nation itself is illegitimate and/or is responsible for all the Middle East’s problems (usually turning a blind eye to the rest of the Middle East), and comments tend to become swiftly impassioned.

There’s a lot I could say on that topic, but what caught my attention was an excerpt of an article that someone produced in support:

After studying the establishment and fall of old empires, and the existing conditions early in the twentieth century, they drew up their suggestions in a report, which ended with a declaration stating that the dangers facing colonialist empires lay in the Arab land if and when they are liberated, united and progress. Thus they recommended to the seven colonialist powers to maintain the prevailing status quo in the region, divided and backward, and keep its people in their current status: disunited, backward, ignorant and quarreling.

The report also recommended fighting the unity of the people of the Arab nation culturally, spiritually and historically, resorting to strong scientific means wherever possible to separate its components from each other, namely keeping apart its western wing away from its eastern wing, that is separate its African wing from the Asian wing, by establishing a foreign and powerful barrier on the land bridge that connects Arab Asia with Arab Africa, which connects them together with the Mediterranean Sea, and near to the Suez Canal, a powerful entity friendly to western colonialism and enemy to its people.

This was, it was claimed, “the plan of Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman”.

Something didn’t seem right about this. Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister was Prime Minister from 1905-1908, a period where the European powers were hardly acting in concert (as would be proved just a few short years later). Furthermore, North Africa and Egypt were already separated from the Levant and Arabia: the latter at the time were not governed by any European colonial power at all, but were territories of the Ottoman Empire. And of course it would certainly be nonsensical to attribute the origins of Zionism to this, considering political Zionism (that is the belief in establishing a Jewish homeland) and other such movements arose in the 19th century.

A quick search on the above text found found the full article, attributed to an author called Awni Farsakh, and claimed to be translated by an Adib S. Kawar; I find little more details of either. although the article itself was supposedly published in Al-Khaleej, based in the United Arab Emirates, on May 11, 2007, while the latter individual is a member of the website, tlaxcala.es,  that had the supposed translated version. Virtually all searches head back to that website, however, as do all other citations. The full article, however, made an extended argument along the lines of the excerpt above, and furthermore attempted to support it from a quote attributed to “the Campbell-Bannerman Report, 1907”:

There are people (the Arabs, Editor’s Note) who control spacious territories teeming with manifest and hidden resources. They dominate the intersections of world routes. Their lands were the cradles of human civilizations and religions. These people have one faith, one language, one history and the same aspirations. No natural barriers can isolate these people from one another … if, per chance, this nation were to be unified into one state, it would then take the fate of the world into its hands and would separate Europe from the rest of the world. Taking these considerations seriously, a foreign body should be planted in the heart of this nation to prevent the convergence of its wings in such a way that it could exhaust its powers in never-ending wars. It could also serve as a springboard for the West to gain its coveted objects.

This is a supposed quotation from this report in 1907. Yet there are already issues with it. There’s the claims, for instance, that the region has “one faith, one language”, claims that anyone familiar with the Middle East should recognise as simply not true, now or in 1907. They are, however, claims that are often advanced both by Arab Nationalists and by Islamic Fundamentalists, and indeed the last few years have witnessed the efforts of groups like ISIS to try and make such claims reality by eliminating groups such as Yazidis, Assyrian Christians and so on.

Furthermore, there’s anachronistic elements to the quotation, such as the idea that the region could “serve as a springboard for the West to gain its coveted objects”. First, the European powers – who were very much focused on their rivalry with each other – were exceptionally unlikely to think of themselves as acting as a unified “West” (in fact that term would be used by the likes of the UK and France to define themselves against other European powers, such as Germany). And then springboard to what? The British Empire of 1907 already included all of India. If one were following the expansive definition of “West” employed here and includes all the other colonial powers, there’s little else left in 1908.

The most fundamental problem with this quotation, however, is that it appears to be a complete fabrication. One can find the full minutes of the proceedings of the Colonial conference of 1907 here. It does not contain that text. Nor is there is any evidence of any other such report; indeed the only sources in English of such a text go back to the article mentioned above. Digging deeper I found a lengthy but interesting recording of a seminar on the topic at the Oxford University Website: Eugene Rogan – The Myth of the Campbell-Bannerman Report: Arab views on Israel after the Suez Crisis, in which Rogan recounts his own research, including interviewing Antoun Canaan, the Egyptian lawyer who is the first to have made claims about the existence of said report in a paper he presented following the Suez Crisis. It appears Canaan himself was unable to explain quite what his sources where, and his paper did not include any citations or quotations. All other references to said report appear to rely on Canaan, and it is some of these later sources that appear to have invented the wording found above. In other words, the above quotation is spurious, and little more than a conspiracy theory. So once again, one should never believe something just because it’s written down, especially if it’s written down on the internet.

“An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses…”

Just came across this bit of description in a Sherlock Holmes story today, and loved it:

As I looked upon him I understood not only the fears and dislike of his manager but also the execrations which so many business rivals have heaped upon his head. If I were a sculptor and desired to idealize the successful man of affairs, iron of nerve and leathery of conscience, I should choose Mr. Neil Gibson as my model. His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man.

The Problem at Thor Bridge, Arthur Conan Doyle