Brexit and the Iraq War: lessons not learnt

by Gerard Delanty

In 2003 the British parliament voted to go to war with Iraq on the dubious grounds that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the UK. This has now proved to be a great mistake, as the Chilcot Report has concluded, and there never was any evidence to support the case for war. Yet, what has been learnt from this exercise in utter folly?  Nothing. The controversy over Brexit today reveals an equally incompetent and supine parliament unable to stand up for truth.

Despite the evidence that it is not in the national interest for the UK to leave the EU and that it would be a step backwards, there has been no protest from parliament against the proBrexit government. It would be appear to be a done deal that the referendum result of the 23rd June 2016 must be implemented and that parliament does not need to debate and vote on whether or should be triggered.

Neither before nor after the Referendum did the government specify a percentage majority. As an advisory referendum, the outcome was subject to further determination as regards whether or not A50 should be triggered. Parliament has remained silent on the basic question of whether the outcome was valid and appears to have accepted the Tory manifesto to implement the result regards of the extent of the majority. Why is this?

The outcome was a slim majority of 3.8%. Why is this small majority being described as the ‘will of the people’? The 58 % cent (17 million) who voted to leave were a mere 37% of an electorate that did not include British citizens living in other EU countries and 16-17 year olds. 63% either voted against or did not vote. There is also the demographic fact that each year there are some 700,000 young people who qualify to vote and most of whom probably can be assumed to be proEuropean.

Why is the outcome treated as if it were ‘first past the post’ election with a simple majority sufficient, when in fact a supermajority of at least 60 % would normally be required for such a major change to the status quo? Why have only a handful of MPS demanded a parliamentary debate and a free vote on whether or not to implement the referendum?

Why is parliament supporting the massive deception that a simple majority is binding and that it is the will of the people when it is obviously nothing of the sort? There is nothing democratic in this. On the contrary it is a perversion of democracy.

The ballot option was simply ‘Leave the European Union’.  It did not specify what this might mean in practice. Some six months later, nobody has any idea what this means. Whatever it means, it certainly does not need to mean leaving the single market even if that requires acceptance of the principle of freedom of movement. It is apparent to all that this would be catastrophic and impractical to realise. Why is the whole issue being discussed on the terms of UKIP and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party?

There are only three options: to remain within the EU; to leave (the so-called Brexit); or to negotiate an arrangement similar to Norway (i.e. remain in the single market and accept freedom of movement, along with other non-negotiable principles of the EU treaties). Only the first two can be decided by the UK government. The third and its variations will have to be negotiated. It is difficult to see how an outcome can be advantageous. The preferred goal of the government to have a soft-Brexit (control over borders but entry to the single market) is undeliverable.

It is evident that there are no advantages to be gained from leaving the EU and that there is insufficient will to do so. Aside from the economic and political upheaval, there are the intractable problems for Ireland and Scotland and for UK citizens living in the rest of the EU.

In order not to repeat the great mistake made in 2003, parliament needs to debate and vote on the referendum rather than await direction from the courts to do so. Until now the only debate is only on the details of the plan and when that plan should be revealed. The government’s plan is as devoid of substance as was Blair’s evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet, all parliamentarians are capable of addressing is the plan for Brexit, not whether it should go ahead or whether there should be a new referendum. Petrified at the prospect of questioning the outcome of the referendum, they prefer to remain silent and hope that providence will come to the rescue. The government has undermined parliament by denying parliament the right to vote on implementing the outcome and parliament has undermined itself by complicity with a project that is manifestly not in the national interest and for which there is no clear-cut mandate. Instead, we hear obfuscating nonsense about the ‘will of the people’.

Historians in the future will look back on 2016 and wonder why so few parliamentarians failed to take a stance on the outcome of the referendum. The judgement of history is likely to be as negative and that nothing was learnt from the great misadventure of the Iraq War.





Professor of Sociology and Social & Political Thought, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK
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