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Rallying the UK 63%. Professor A.C. Grayling. Last night in Maynooth

October 11, 2018


After a long day in the office, there’s part of me that wants nothing less than a lecture about Brexit.  This part of me is, however,  a lazy and dishonest part, a morally delinquent element of my make up.

You see, I can help but feel that one of the root causes of Brexit is the cowardice and stupidity of people like me – people who were well placed to see what was going on in Britain and who wilfully blinded themselves.  When I’m reminded of Brexit, I feel reminded of the fact that I should probably spend every remaining day of my life apologising to everybody in the world for the full extent of this failure.

Furthermore, here in Ireland, Brexit evokes a sense of impotent dread, given how much it will impact upon our island and how little we can do to prevent or even mitigate its various impacts.

Yet Professor Grayling, on stage and in person, is astonishingly buoyant.  He has clearly given the speech we heard very often, and it could be suggested that he made only very fleeting though polite nods to the fact that he was addressing an Irish audience and not a British audience.   He offered us a rather familiar, though sometimes very enlightening survey of the origins of the Westminster model of representative governance from the Putney Debates of 1647, through Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson etc.  pointing out, crucially, that the original “Westminster Model” regarded “The Crown” as a separate executive rather than fusing the executive and legislative identities as closely as they became during the mid nineteenth-century.

This context was useful for the very necessary detail that was to follow.  Prof. Grayling drew everyone’s attention to the Parliamentary Briefing Paper No.07212 which stipulated that for forthcoming June 2016 Brexit referendum (perhaps more accurately a plebiscite) was, explicitly, an advisory rather than a binding referendum.  He also noted the important restrictions placed on the electorate.  16-18 year olds were not permitted to vote, as they had been in the Scottish Independence referendum and nor were British citizen who had been living outside the UK for more than fifteen years (i.e. me), and nor, crucially were law abiding tax paying EU citizen resident in the UK.  These excluded voters were all likely remain voters who were removed from this most defining of decisions.

The referendum resulted, as we all know in a 48.9% vote for Remain and a 51.9% vote for Leave.  Prof. Grayling noted, however, that other referendums of this magnitude have required a majority percentage threshold.  Scottish devolution proposals were curtailed back in 1979 precisely because the required threshold was not reached.  He also noted that according to British law trade unions are not allowed to call a strike unless 40% of the eligible union electorate have voted for it.

The percentage of the eligible electorate that voted for Brexit?  37%.

He also noted that while the vote for Remain can be straightforwardly interpreted as a clear statement of support for staying in the EU, the Leave vote, when analysed, fragments into a strange range of motives, ranging from “sticking it to the powers that be” – to rather nasty nativism – to genuine concern for the accountability of transnational structures of governance.

Such were the contradictions involved with the criteria applied to the application and interpretation of this referendum that Prof. Grayling declared that the UK had ignored its own constitutional principles before triggering Article 50.

Following this detailed forensic assessment, came the jolly part.  He, as coordinator of many anti-Brexit groups, is very confident about the possibility and outcome of second Brexit vote.   He pointed out that all recent opinion polls demonstrate majorities in the UK in favour of remain.  He noted the UK still has before the last day of December 2020, to effect a simple and painless withdrawal from the Brexit chaos.

He concluded by declaring his belief that the creature currently known as populism is never an authentically democratic phenomenon, a grass route bubbling up of authentically popular sentiment – but is always associated with a sort of collective surrender to demagoguery.

The Q&A session perhaps inevitably resulted in less optimistic questions being raised.  Some of us left feeling that Professor Grayling may have proved the political logic of a second referendum, and that a second referendum may well be the only way out of the current Westminster log-jam.  Many of us felt less confident that the key movers and shakers could be described as rationally motivated, or motivated by anything other than how others can be blamed for failure.  Theresa May’s government appears to have muddled on, in 72 hour installments, for so long, that any decisive crisis has been long averted.  Yet this muddling through has been taking place on a train leading to an abyss.

I got to talk to A.C. Grayling afterwards and found him most charming, witty, and well informed.  Perhaps a charm offensive is, after all, the best policy.  In a twisted world in which a serial, proven, impenitent liar like Boris Johnson can survive politically because enough people find him inexplicably charming, then perhaps charm is the best (perhaps the only) weapon that the forces of light can muster.

Despite all my misgivings, I found myself less depressed coming out of a lecture on Brexit than I was going in.  Thank you Professor A.C. Grayling. This is a state of affairs I could never have predicted yesterday morning.




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