Brexit, Democracy and the Sacred

There is no way back to a United Kingdom without some form of sacrifice, writes Jonathan Rowson. A second referendum in which an option to remain in the EU requires a supermajority could be a step in the right direction.

Why has Brexit led the UK to such an absurd situation? We are told the army is preparing to be on standby for a No Deal Brexit, which means nothing, even after the government denies it, but signals incipient social breakdown. Our Health Secretary is buying fridges to store medicines, which reminds millions their health relies on contingent imports from the EU. We are assured there will be adequate food, and laugh, but the absurdity is dark. We are advised that our default scenario of leaving the EU without a deal would not be ‘the end of the world’, but not why that should be viewed as a good thing. Due to a recent legal ruling from the European Court of Justice, we now know we could stop Brexit by unilaterally revoking our Article 50 Notification, but many consider that apparently sensible idea an unthinkable betrayal. Clearly something bizarre and irrational is happening, but we need a deeper diagnosis to make sense of it.  [1] [2]

The philosophical heart of Brexit is the unexamined relationship between democracy and the sacred, and how that relationship manifests in the UK in particular.

What makes something sacred is not that it is religious or even that it is good, but that it represents a moral touchstone or boundary; something held to be fundamental and inviolable. The sacred is an antidote to instrumentality; it is whatever we are invested in — family, flag, place, idea – to the extent that to lose it would represent an existential threat to our identity and capacity to make meaning out of life. Hard though it may be for Remainers to understand, Brexit is sacred in precisely that way for many who who voted to leave. What matters politically and culturally with Brexit therefore is that democracy is upheld as the founding principle of our shared life together. If that shared touchstone goes, or is seen to have gone, everything else could go with it. [3]

We are stuck therefore because two of democracy’s moral logics are talking past each other. The utilitarian logic is about avoiding or managing the negative consequences of Brexit; but the deontological logic is about guarding the sanctity of the decision to leave, regardless of consequences. We are spending billions preparing for a no deal Brexit that few want because the language of consequences has no standing in matters that are perceived to be sacred. As pragmatism and principle go head to head, what superficially looks like a civil war between Leavers and Remainers may be more like the decisive challenge to a barely coherent political system. The body politic is weak and Brexit is a kind of cancer; we are attacking ourselves for reasons that risk remaining mysterious whether we figuratively live or die.

Whether you think leaving the EU increases our sovereignty or diminishes it, democracy is a valid touchstone in this debate. Democracy is grounded in a principle of moral equality between citizens, manifest in our human rights within the rule of law, and made politically tangible through the principle of One Person One Vote, and voting outcomes being sacrosanct. When Brexiteers speak of not leaving the EU in terms of ‘frustrating the will of the people’ or ‘betraying democracy’ it can sound shrill, but it is the violation of this principle of moral equality that they are invoking, even if their ultimate motivation may lie elsewhere. The success of Brexiteers has been to sacralise a particular outcome of a democratic process in the name of democracy, despite the fact that it is the principles underlying the process that are sacred, not the outcome. Democracy should be an evolving historical and institutional process, part of a shared setting in which complexities are aired, opinions evolve and debates are resolved. Alas, Brexit reduced democracy to a distilled opinion of 17.4 million people at one moment in time; a revealed religion that found evangelical form in ‘the will of the people’.

The success of the Brexiteers has been to sacralise a particular outcome of a democratic process in the name of democracy, despite the fact that it is the principles underlying the process that are sacred, not the outcome.

It is hard to say how this was allowed to happen in the UK, but there is something distinctive about how our political culture engenders a particular kind of democratic attitude. Most UK voters encounter democracy through our anti-representative voting system, First Past the Post, which teaches us that voting is about choosing a government and that winner takes all. Mostly Brits don’t think about democracy, but when we do it is mostly a matter of picking winners, and it is not clear how much the public care about not being represented as such. For instance about two thirds of voters don’t even live in marginal constituencies; their vote is mostly ritualistic and many cast it knowing that it will not directly affect pivotal political outcomes. Our democratic culture offers few salient reference points for notions of democracy that go beyond simple majorities, and binary outcomes. When Leavers say of Brexit: “It’s democracy”, their idea of democracy is painfully thin, but forgivably so.

The sacred nature of Brexit is also connected to nostalgia for global stature. More precisely, as Anthony Barnett argues, it was the absence of a distinctive civic English nationalism that turned Brexit into a distorted crypto colonial British agenda. The lack of a national conversation about Englishness and political institutions to express distinctly English matters meant that Englishness found expression in a form of British identity characterised by past imperialist glory and opposition to transnational assimilation. Brexit is therefore a vehicle to keep unconscious English superiority on the road, and immigration became a totemic issue because it was the necessary scapegoat for this story, and one that continues to dominate the policy debate.  The repeated emphasis on ‘making our own global trade deals’ may therefore be a sanitised code for reclaiming lost Empire. Again, to be charitable, this is on the forgivable side of ignorance, given that most Brits view the British Empire as a good thing, and our schools rarely teach it as anything other than an achievement.  [4] [5] [6]

Our challenge now is not to sweep the crisis under the carpet, but to move on from Brexit with collective dignity, and without leaving debilitating scars. The ideal outcome would be one that reimagines the nature of the Brexit problem in a way that better connects diagnosis to prescription; an approach that is less about parliamentary arithmetic in early 2019 and more about sixty-seven million people living and working together with European allies over the next few decades. Democracy gives us a basis for the legitimate exercise of power. The only thing that can beat democracy in a way that ensures enduring legitimacy is more democracy.

Recent calls by leading cultural figures for ‘A People’s Assembly’ are a good start, but in a context where the country seems to have lost its soul and its mind, we urgently need a new lodestar to shift the public debate; a proposal that speaks to the deeper causes of our crisis, and forges a political process that is more resolutely cathartic. [7]

With that fuller diagnosis in mind, here is a wildly unrealistic but entirely serious suggestion:

A cross-party alliance of MPs should table a motion requesting a two year extension to Article 50. We need to legislate for a second referendum with a twist, and with enough time to establish the contours of what the result of the referendum would mean in constitutional and policy terms. The prior decision to leave the EU would be respected as our existing democratic decision and default option, and understood to mean leaving with Theresa May’s Deal; the best the government could do and all the EU is offering. This outcome can be avoided after a national campaign by revoking our Article 50 notification, but this would require a supermajority of 66% (two thirds) of the UK as a whole and at least 50% in each of the four home nations. However, this time EU nationals and UK citizens living in the EU would be allowed to vote, as would 16 and 17 year olds; in each case extending on existing precedents (e.g. 16-17 year olds voted in the Scottish referendum in 2014, and EU nationals are currently allowed to vote in local elections) and based on polling data about the acceptability of EU nationals voting as full-time residents.

Requiring a supermajority sounds like the kind of complacency that led to our current predicament, but most of the arguments for leaving the EU are now procedural rather than substantive. We are told to ‘get on with it’ not in spite but because the economic and political case for Brexit has weakened over the last two years as new facts have come to light.

In the event that Remain wins a simple majority of between 50-66% the result will be taken in a conciliatory spirit as a mandate to leave the EU but remain within the EEA or EFTA, a so-called ‘soft Brexit’; this outcome would depend on prior agreement in principle from the relevant countries that is not guaranteed. We would need a White Paper to make sense of what it could and would potentially mean, but it represents a viable middle way that has the benefit of being more likely than the new deal from the EU that is currently the delusional premise of our two major parties. However, few people actively want that outcome when others are available, and few would campaign for it. The national unity campaign would be to stay in the EU on our current terms. The target figure could reasonably be lower than 66% but making it too close to 50% risks defeating the cathartic purpose of a second referendum requiring a supermajority to remain. (It is possible there might also be a WTO Brexit option included, to avoid excluding the hard-core Brexiteers, but that seems too far from public opinion to be the default option; all such details need further thought).

The point is not just for one side to win, but to subsume the toxic and divisive energy of the first referendum in the relatively positive and inclusive energy of the second. The purpose of the supermajority and expanded electorate is to neutralise the legitimate claim that another referendum would cause further division and be a betrayal of (a prevailing perception of) democracy. The resulting campaign cannot be about wishing away the causes and consequences of the first vote. In light of the exacting 66% target, the point would have to be national renewal within a further democratised transnational alliance, and it should be collaborative and inclusive by design.

The point is not just for one side to win, but to subsume the toxic and divisive energy of the first referendum in the relatively positive and inclusive energy of the second.

There is a strong desire throughout the UK to find a way through the Brexit confusion towards a more unified and reinvigorated democratic country that maintains social order and avoids economic and ecological collapse. We don’t know what that means in policy terms yet but it might mean a constitutional convention leading to a new voting system or a quasi-federal constitution including an English Parliament; it could mean a universal basic income, and it might mean the UK equivalent of the green new deal; over time it might even mean a more fully democratised EU. Recognising the sacred quality of Brexit is at the heart of this proposal; and sacrifice – literally to make sacred – is at the heart of the suggestion for what we do now.

In light of existing support for independence in Scotland and growing support for a United Ireland; and due to the socio-economic divisions and alienation between rulers and ruled that drove the result, there is no way back to anything resembling a united kingdom without some kind of sacrifice. The UK has been weakened both by the Brexit process and all currently conceivable outcomes, but sacrifice is precisely about the transition from weakness to power, in which, as Terry Eagleton puts it, self-dispossession is a condition for self-fulfilment. Asking for a second referendum in which we can only remain with a supermajority is a form of self-dispossession, and it has to be a genuine sacrifice and risk for there to be a chance of fulfilment.

Moving towards those kinds of transformative ideas will require more political vision and capacity for sacrifice than is currently evident in British political life. Still, there is a dearth of good alternatives at present. Those who believe a better future lies in the EU need to give something away for that possibility to return without enduring recrimination. Including those who were excluded last time and sacrificing up to 16% of the vote seems gratuitous in instrumental terms, but it follows from a recognition of the need to make a new referendum more democratic than the one it seeks to subsume.

The current impasse might lead to a second referendum with similar terms to the first, but that entails significant political risk (losing again due to strength of betrayal narrative) and cultural risk (enduring division). A deeper sense of hope lies in the 48% becoming the 66% by fully attending to the needs of the greater 100% in their fuller European context. The case for staying in the EU is as strong as ever and recent polling suggests a narrowly vanquished minority could become a super majority.  However, for that to happen we may need a sacrificial act that shows we are no longer wishing Brexit away, and care about the future of the country as a whole. [8]

Jonathan Rowson is a chess Grandmaster, Director of Perspectiva and currently an Open Society Fellow. His book, The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life will be published by Bloomsbury in 2019.

Follow @Jonathan_Rowson and @Perspecteeva


[1] See ‘Health Secretary Matt Hancock accused of ‘boasting’ about ‘no-deal’ Brexit preparations‘, ‘Brexit secretary admits government must ensure ‘there is adequate food supply’ if UK leaves EU with no deal‘, ‘A “People’s Vote” on Brexit – be careful what you wish for‘, ‘The ultimate causes of Brexit: history, culture, and geography‘, ‘No 10 deny plan for Army role in ‘no deal’ Brexit‘, ‘May says no-deal Brexit not ‘the end of the world’ – Sky‘, and ‘Brexit ruling: UK can cancel decision, EU court says

[2] At the core of our Brexit predicament is an unresolved sense of dissonance; in aggregate the country appears to feel both that we should not leave the EU and that we have to leave. This dissonance has taken hold because leaders and followers alike have failed to build a national consensus about what the result of the referendum meant in its fullest, deepest and broadest sense. Back in June 2016, we needed a moment of collective reckoning, a wholehearted and truthful conversation about the causes and consequences of leaving the EU; instead we had “Brexit means Brexit”, a series of unhelpful negotiating postures and political decisions, and an irresolute opposition; all of which manifests now in the lack of a parliamentary majority for a viable way forward.

Our sense of dissonance lingers because of our inability to make a compelling connection between the diagnosis of why we voted to leave, and what follows for how we should resolve the current deadlock. It has been argued that the economic causes of Brexit were inequality compounded by austerity, but it is doubtful that leaving the EU on May’s terms will help. It has been suggested that the political heart of Brexit was a generalised distrust of elites, an acute absence of agency and a moment to express it by reclaiming sovereignty, but it is not clear that sovereignty will be increased rather than diminished, nor what ‘taking back control’ will mean in practice for those who voted for it. Some say the cultural basis of Brexit was a significant portion of the population not identifying as European alongside a perceived loss of status and identity caused by globalisation, amplified through immigration as a scapegoating device; but few believe leaving the EU will significantly reduce immigration to the UK in general, or explain why it was EU immigration in particular that led to Brexit.

[3] Gordon Lynch, On the Sacred. Heretics series. Routledge, 2012.

[4] England has by far the largest population of the four home nations, had the highest turnout (73%) and voted most heavily to leave (53.4%). While the other home nations have some sense of civic nationalism, with attendant institutions and practices, England does not. To be Scottish and British and European makes sense because each level of identity builds on the other without threatening it; from nation with devolved powers to multi-national state, to transnational alliance. Being English and British and European does not work in the same way; because being English is currently too close to being British for that distinction to matter, and for some, part of being English is therefore not so much not being Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, but about being British as opposed to being European. Anthony Barnett – ‘Albion’s Call: Brexit, democracy and England‘,October 2018.

[5] Three quarters of the UK think the British Empire is something to be proud of rather than ashamed of, and a third would like it still to exist

[6] There is little reckoning in our education system about the fact, for instance, that Britain drained about 45 trillion pounds from India over the colonial period, not to mention torture and slavery along the way

[7] See, for example, A Citizen’s Assembly Could Break the Deadlock by Rowan Williams et al., ‘Turning Brexit into a Celebration of Democracy‘ by Yannis Varoufakis, and by ‘Brexit Can Be a Good Crisis‘ by Anthony Barnett

[8] For instance YouGov suggest 64% would like a second referendum, and there is now a 11% lead for remain (on the basis of the prior electorate).

Image via Coventry Telegraph

Update: An expanded version of this essay is published on Medium here 


  1. Ian Christie writes:

    Congratulations to Jonathan on his excellent article on Brexit and the sacred.

    We might follow up on Jonathan’s idea of there being moral logics in democracy. The utilitarian and deontological logics are indeed ‘talking past each other’, as Jonathan says. But as we know from ethical theory, these are not the only moral logics and they are also insufficient even if necessary to a complete moral ecology. Utilitarian logic can’t tell us about the inherent ethical quality of a decision or set of goods; and deontology can’t readily offer consistent rules for decision-making or a foundational set of values to care about, without which the claim of duty or obligation lacks heart and fire. In the Western tradition there is one other grand theme, that of virtue. The trouble with democracy as it is now being lived and debated is that we are simply appealing either to results or to quasi-sacred duty, with no sense of what it means to be a good citizen participating in democracy as a way of life, a cluster of virtuous practices embedded in the everyday. Democracy is experienced as a decision-making process inserted from above into one’s life at periodic intervals, in which a message is sent to a remote political class, on whom we depend and whom we also are taught to despise (not least by their own actions). The decision is made based on our imperfect calculus of utility and/or a sense of what counts as sacred imperative. It contrasts with the speed and responsiveness and apparent wish-fulfilment in the consumer economy, and is bound to leave everyone feeling short-changed when it holds out a promise of ‘retail politics’ (what a revealing phrase) that cannot be realised, as has been true ever since the demise of the postwar consensus and inclusive growth. It is no wonder we have a low-trust system that disappoints in between moments of unjustified euphoria for the winning side. Democracy as a way of life, by contrast, focuses on participation and deliberation and the encouragement of the virtues of debate, compromise and attention to complexity, trade-offs and agonistic problems. We are a long way from this vision of democracy as continuous moral education and mutual governance; but can we go on without it?

    Ian Christie is at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey, and a Trustee of Perspectiva


  2. Jonathan
    thank you very much for a very good article. The contrasting Irish Abortion Referendums should be of interest, in that a super-majority in one direction was swung around the other way albeit over a much longer time period than a few years:

    It is very likely that I will reference this in an upcoming Progressive Pulse article and will let you know via Twitter


  3. Jonathan, thank you so much for this, which I came by from a friend on facebook and have now also posted myself. Your use of the category of the sacred seems to me spot-on, and now I’m kicking myself for not having reached for it myself, as I sometimes teach Durkheim and related stuff. I’m very worried about the putatively violent poisons that are killing democratic collectivity – in particular on the Remain side (I’m a remourner). The idea that it could be okay to simply discount the 2016 result via a close Remain win on a replacement referendum should fill us all with cold fear, because it is the collective sacred and its consent that is endangered both in Parliament and in the unexamined sacralities (often matched to self-interested utility) that seem to me to drive many “People’s Vote” campaigners. It seems to me that only forms of sacrality can make space for the consent (including consent-to-lose) that is necessary for what we call democracy. And then maybe we could begin to cultivate virtues also. And you have reminded me to go and read Eagleton’s book. Thank you so much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s