Democracy and Brexit

February 20, 2018

Last week the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gave a major speech at Policy Exchange – the first in a series by Cabinet Ministers setting out the UK Government’s approach to Brexit. Through the device of a conversation with a constituent, Johnson sought to explain why leaving the EU was a reason to be optimistic – while highlighting the many ways in which the UK and Europe would remain close, beyond geography.

The Foreign Secretary began by recognising the strong feelings on the remain side have felt – and continue to feel – since the referendum: grief, alienation, a sense that somehow their future has been taken away.

Yet he emphasised that any attempt to frustrate Brexit would lead to ‘permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal’.

That accepted, he pressed that ‘we must also reach out to those who still have anxieties’.

And so he identified three areas of concerns to remainers and sought to disarm them.


First, there was the idea that Brexit was a strategic mistake – Britain is small country with fewer than 1% of the world’s population. We need to be part of the European Union for protection – and we need to be part of the EU to fulfil our historic role of maintaining the balance of power on the continent.

The Foreign Secretary dismissed these concerns – ‘We will continue to be Europeans both practically and psychologically, because our status as one of the great contributors to European culture and civilisation – and our status as one of the great guarantors of the security of Europe’. He also highlighted the size of the UK’s economy, military and global influence.


The second anxiety he identified was, he said, ‘spiritual’ – that by voting to leave the EU we had rejected the principles which some believe are embodied in its institutions and treaties. ‘They fear that the Brexit vote was a vote for nationalism and small-mindedness and xenophobia’, he said.

Answering this charge, he named numerous routes whereby Britons would continue to interact with Europe and visa versa. ‘There is no sensible reason why we should not be able to retire to Spain or indeed anywhere else (as indeed we did long before Spain joined what was then called the common market).’ Cultural exchanges and academic co-operation would continue he said, noting ‘participating scholars are certainly not confined to the EU.’

The economy

The third objection to Brexit he identified was economic. The fear that the UK had voted to make itself ‘less prosperous; that membership of the EU is vital for UK business and investment’.

Dismissing this fear, he started with a restatement of the pledge that money presently sent to the EU should be redirected to national priorities like the NHS.

He moved to make an argument that Brexit was a liberal, open project, he sought to distance himself from anti-immigrant policies – ‘we need talented people to come and make their lives in this country – doctors, scientists, the coders and programmers who are so crucial to Britain’s booming tech economy.’ He continued that international students should be a priority and highlighted the 155,000 students here from China.

He then ended with a list of statistics about how Britain’s economic opportunities were already growing much faster outside of the EU and pressing this is where the future of the UK’s economy lay – ‘It is a striking fact that our exports to the EU have grown by only 10% since 2010, while our sales to the US are up 41%, to China 60%, to Saudi Arabia 41, New Zealand 40, Japan 60, South Korea 100%’.

Democracy and accountability

And so he closed, returning to the theme of democracy quoting Konrad Adenauer that ‘every nation had its genius, and that the genius of the British people was for democratic politics’.

And it was this message that stood out from the speech. Beyond the economic and strategic arguments – which experts can continually debate and never reach agreement – was a central message of democratic-accountability.

Derided by detractors in the press, the Foreign Secretary seemed at his most heartfelt when contrasting his experience on the street with politicians in Brussels. ‘That’s the point, isn’t it.’, he challenged his audience, ‘at least they know roughly who I am and roughly what I do, generally speaking.’

He spoke of how the British people had long championed their right to kick-out their leaders in a democratic fashion. The alienation between lawmakers in Brussels and those living under those rules in Britain meant there could not be a sense of common feeling needed for healthy, democratic self-government. This, however, didn’t mean we couldn’t be the best of friends.

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