The fallout over Brexit has been, to a very large extent, inevitable.
Brexit was a political event born out of an inherently flawed and contradictory political philosophy, both at a global and individual level – a philosophy where sovereignty is beset by competing rivalries and where policy-making is open to unacceptable levels of manipulation.
The flawed and contradictory political philosophy is the secular creed from which all other political trends flow in capitalist liberal democracies.
The idea that the nation state holds the highest level of political loyalty emerges from this creed – as do the ideas of the free market, free movement of labour, and the benefit of globalisation on economic growth.
Yet these ideas are in conflict when manifest in the European Union. The greater economic and political union that has been achieved through various EU treaties – in order to achieve a market that is more free – has required that sovereignty be ceded from Westminster to Brussels, and that the Supreme Court in London be subject to the European Court.
It is this tension that is the fundamental divide between Remainers and Brexiteers: the former recognising that to leave will have profound negative economic effects, and the latter concerned that national sovereignty has been diminished by the European project.
These competing ideas have grown in strength over the decades – at a tangent to each other, not in parallel – to the point where they appear incompatible and are the main source of division.
This division is not unique to Britain. Across Europe, nationalist parties have exploited the grievances of people who do not feel they have benefited from the European project, in the same way that people in the US have complained that the benefits of globalisation have not trickled down to them.
It is an almost insoluble dilemma.
Islam does not face this particular problem, insofar as its political and economic systems are in harmony and run in parallel.
The political philosophy of Islam emerges from the Qur’ān and Sunnah.
From it, we understand the concept of Dawlah (‘state’ or ‘polity’), which is the system of governance under the Khilāfah that states that Sharī’ah is sovereign and that the bonds that unite people as citizens are consistent. Dawlah is the bond of Islam that unites Muslims; the same Islam tells the same Muslims that non-Muslims who live alongside them as colleagues, neighbours, and even family members should be treated as citizens under the law.
And it is from the same Qur’ān and Sunnah that we also understand the system of Islamic economics, which is entirely in harmony with the political system and which encourages trade, forbids usury, encourages the circulation of wealth, discourages hoarding, abolishes ḥarām taxes, and gives people a share in fuel and natural resources.
‘Government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ supposedly makes ‘the people’ sovereign. Yet the question revealed by Brexit was ‘which people?’ Is it the general public who vote in a referendum? Their elected representatives in parliament? Or is it the government that enjoys the confidence of a majority of that parliament? Of course, the answer is supposed to be that it is ultimately the general public, but that sovereignty is constitutionally delegated to the relevant bodies.
However, what Brexit has revealed is that constitutional checks and balances have become weaponised by political rivals against each other at the expense of good governance. This weaponisation is not by the opposition against the government, but by parliament against the executive, and vice versa.
The confidence of the general public in the system has plummeted. This is either because the elected representatives have failed to deliver on the result of the referendum, or because of the political antics in Westminster where one faction is constantly trying to outmanoeuvre the other.
And it is the ordinary people who are the casualties caught in the crossfire of Leavers and Remainers.
Islam places sovereignty with the Sharī’ah, and authority with the people. People choose their rulers and hold them to account, but they are not sovereign. Rather, something higher than the people, and unifying, provides stability in society.
Consultation (shūrā) is permissible in some areas, and when sought becomes binding on the government. Yet it could never be in a matter as fundamental as they type of governing system or an international treaty. To make a mass public consultation about such a matter would be absurd.
The question is also asked of the fundamental choice between the main parties. How much of a divide can there be if a former contender for the leadership of the Labour party (Chuka Umunna) and former contender for the leadership of the Conservative party (Sam Gyimah) can both find a home in the Liberal Democrats party?
In the United States, there is a red-capitalist party and a blue-capitalist party. In Britain, you can add an orange-capitalist party as well.
The Brexit dilemma – as well as the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour party – has revealed a nationalist fringe at one end of the Conservative spectrum and a socialist fringe at the edge of the Labour spectrum. However, the dominant force is one of three shades of middle-ground capitalism, which means that there isn’t really a significant choice. Even the fringes are within the acceptable ideological spectrum, with the exception of the far-left.
This is not so surprising. It would be the case in any ideological society. Indeed, in an Islamic state, there would be a spectrum of political opinion, yet within the ideological spectrum that Islam permits. The only difference is that democratic societies make false claims about the degree of choice.
The point is that the political class that dominates can be utterly out of step with the people that they represent; this is manifest in their subverting of the result of the referendum.
Manipulation of policies
The question of which people have the most say in a democracy invites us to think of the small number of disproportionately influential people for whom most important policies are made.
Historically, these influential people have been those with the most wealth, including landowners and business magnates. Rupert Murdoch was once asked why he did not like the European Union, to which he allegedly answered, “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”
This does not mean that the EU is not influenced by big business interests. It just means that individuals like Rupert Murdoch will find it much harder to spread his influence over several governments.
The influence of big money on politics in a democracy cannot be overstated.
However, the phenomenon of social media means that others – whether in states like Russia or alt-right groups in America – can influence political opinion in another country.
Speaking in December 2016, Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, said “The connectivity that is the heart of globalisation can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims […] The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty.”
Where sovereignty is linked to public opinion, it can now be manipulated from outside the state.
Cambridge Analytica, the company that used Facebook data to help focus political messages in the direction of ‘Leave’ at the time of the Brexit referendum, influenced public opinion in a way that aimed to weaken Britain and the EU. Cambridge Analytica was led by Robert Mercer, an American hedge fund billionaire, and Steve Bannon of the alt-right Breitbart News. Both of these men saw Britain and the EU as a rival to the US and its interests, as well as the interests of its allies.
Moreover, politicians manipulate the system for their own ends. Whether it is David Cameron calling the referendum for his party’s interests, or Boris supporting the ‘Leave’ campaign for personal gain, or opposition parties refusing to ally with each other to halt Brexit because of party interests, all of these situations show how the system puts politics above the interests of the people.
Islam’s principled approach regarding the bedrock of the political system means that even if individuals are influenced by external sources, the fundamentals remain stable. Foreign policy relationships are for the furthering of the Islamic message, not political gain or interests.
Contradictory and divergent political opinions are seemingly intractable. Whether in Britain or the US, politics is broken because society is utterly divided.
The competition between people, parliament, and the government is damaging to the system. The manipulation of politics in Brexit-Britain is dangerously open to external influence now than ever before.
Almost a decade ago, the political commentator Simon Jenkins wrote:
“Democracy in both America and Britain is coming under scrutiny these days. Quite apart from the antics of MPs and congressmen, it is said to be sliding towards oligarchy, with increasing overtones of autocracy. Money and its power over technology are making elections unfair. The military-industrial complex is as powerful as ever, having adopted “the menace of global terrorism” as its casus belli. Lobbying and corruption are polluting the government process. In a nutshell, democracy is not in good shape.”
His words ring truer today than they did back when he wrote them. It beggars belief that people do not see that the current system is not the stable system of governance it was once lauded to be.