If Big Ben bongs on Brexit day, every hammer blow will push this country further apart – Alex Andreou

Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit is not going to unite the country, says Alex Andreou (Picture: Frank Augstein - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit is not going to unite the country, says Alex Andreou (Picture: Frank Augstein - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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Boris Johnson’s triumphalism over Brexit is unlikely to win over many of the 48 per cent of UK voters who wanted to stay in the European Union, writes Alex Andreou.

The fixation with Big Ben “bonging” for Brexit demonstrates precisely the sort of tone-deafness responsible for the country being as divided as ever. On one level, of course, it is an irrelevance. Just the latest act of trolling from a political faction expert at it. Symbolism, however, matters in politics. And what this symbolises, in its proper context, is an utterly toxic attitude, in the midst of such profound division: triumphalism.

There is a reason why referees and football authorities punish players who celebrate a goal in front of the opposition’s fans. It is needlessly provocative and dangerous.

For consent to be meaningful, it must be freely given. It cannot be coerced. And so it is with that vital part of every functioning democracy: “losers’ consent” – much bandied about by Brexiter talking heads in the last few years. They misunderstand this concept, much as they misunderstand features of the democracy they invoke.

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Losers’ consent depends on several factors: the clarity and legitimacy of a result. That the mandate it confers will not be exceeded. The grace with which the winning side treats the losing side. The efforts made to reassure those who believe the result will hurt them. Every single one of those elements has been entirely absent from the handling of the referendum result.

So when Brexiters bemoan the lack of consent, let them also consider what they have done to procure it. What compromise have they offered, that reflects the narrowness of the result? What efforts have they made to reassure the public there was no improper interference? The Russia report is still suppressed.

Any attempt to sell the benefits of Brexit stopped the day of the referendum. The sole argument in its favour has become “because people voted for it”. How can that bring the millions who didn’t vote for it to a position of acceptance?

Losers’ consent hangs on a tacit civil agreement that the result of a vote will be respected, in its entirety and all its aspects, not in a grotesque binary translation. From the day after the referendum the 52 per cent has been treated as if it were 100 per cent and the 48 per cent as if it did not exist. This is why losers’ consent has not been forthcoming. There is no “loser” who will ever consent to being utterly obliterated on a 52-48 mandate. There is no EU27 migrant, like me, who will accept the annihilation of their rights with positivity. The state’s promises mean little after the Windrush scandal.

One cannot “unite the country” by crowing; cannot “begin the healing” with triumphalism; will not achieve “closure” by dismissing millions of people who believe this is a profound error.

That the Prime Minister could fathom focusing his triumphal symbolism in the centre of a city, London, utterly traumatised by the spectre of Brexit, merely confirms why we must continue fighting it with all our strength. Because it is the thin end of an authoritarian project. Brexiters’ aim is not – and was never – to unite, but to crush.

They are in charge now. Little can be done about that. But I’ll be damned if I rubber-stamp their plan, in the name of some sentimental notion of patriotic unity. I will not be bullied into joint ownership of this terrible act. I am a sore loser, because I have reason to be sore.

Any leader serious about uniting the country will start from a position of respecting – not minimising – the grief millions feel. So, let Big Ben bong, if you feel it is so indispensable to your celebration, but know that every hammer blow will push this country further apart.