WHEN the Prime Minister announced the Brexit deal on Christmas Eve, he looked back to the 2016 Referendum, when “the British people voted to take back control of their money, their borders, their laws, and their waters.” It is hard, looking back over these past four-and-a-half years, to discover Boris Johnson’s grounds for such a confident attribution to the British people. It is true that the Referendum vote tipped narrowly in favour of leaving the European Union, but can Mr Johnson have forgotten the mendacious and improperly financed campaign? Vote Leave was later fined £62,000 by the Electoral Commission, and Dominic Cummings remarked: “If Boris, Gove and Gisela [Stuart, a Labour MP] had not supported us and picked up the baseball bat marked ‘Turkey/NHS/£350 million’ with five weeks to go, then 650,000 [the margin of victory] might have been lost” (The Spectator, 20 January 2017). It is true that the 2019 General Election put paid to any effective opposition, but this was after what was essentially an anti-Corbyn campaign and, as in previous elections, the majority of votes were cast against the winning party. Since that time, public opinion has been consistently opposed to Brexit, although by a margin small enough for the Government to ignore.
As has been found of many populist movements, the drive to leave the EU was less a groundswell of public desire than the persistent manoeuvring of a small, influential group. The shift of the argument online, with messages carefully targeted at specific audiences (the Conservatives identified 72 demographics in the last campaign), rings alarm bells about the future of democracy in the UK, not least because the Labour Party attempted the same, less expertly. In Democracy for Sale (2020), Peter Geoghegan recounts how far behind the curve the Electoral Commission is in attempting to regulate this traffic, using laws framed in the analogue era. While paid-for political advertising is banned on television, the medium most favoured by mainstream political parties and shady, short-duration, single-issue campaign groups, they now must rely on whatever self-regulation can be wrung from companies such as Facebook. Geoghegan cites the appearance of Facebook ads in favour of the Green Party in marginal constituencies before the 2019 Election, paid for not by the Greens but by an obscure 3rd Party Ltd. Another shadowy organisation, Britain’s Future, spent £400,000 on Facebook ads earlier that year urging voters to lobby their MPs for a no-deal Brexit. These are just two examples of how small groups and individuals — quite possibly with foreign money — have tugged at the leash of democratic accountability and found it unattached.
Mr Johnson’s desire to appear Churchillian is well known. It is, though, another of his predecessors who comes to mind in this context. The Duke of Wellington, who came to office in the early 18th century, observed: “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” Now that a no-deal Brexit is off the cards, it would be wise to reckon the cost of this victory, not just in the more easily counted rise in prices or loss of jobs, but in the more intangible damage done to British democracy. Without greater regulation to bring hard-won electoral accountability to the digital world — an unlikely pursuit for the present Government — the true voice of the British people might never be heard again.