Open Letter on Brexit that Spiked Rejected

Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum, to take place on June 23, on whether the United Kingdom will leave the European Union (EU). “Brexit”—British exit—from the EU is favored by Spiked, a London-based online publication edited by Brendan O’Neill, a former member of the defunct Revolutionary Communist Party (UK).

Chris Gilligan’s “Open Letter” challenging Spiked’s position appears here for the first time. He first submitted it to that publication, where he has served as a contributing author, but it was rejected—notwithstanding O’Neill’s portrayal of himself as a forceful advocate of free speech. With Sober Senses is pleased to publish it. – The Editors


Popular sovereignty requires vigorous debate – Chris Gilligan

I wrote this open letter as a contribution to the vigorous debate that Brendan O’Neill and Spiked claim that they want to promote. I think that O’Neill’s refusal to publish the open letter suggests that Spiked’s commitment to free speech and rigorous debate is bigger on rhetoric than it is on substance. Read O’Neill’s editorial, then read my criticism (below) and decide for yourself.


Open Letter on Spiked‘s ‘Leave the EU’ campaign


by Chris Gilligan

Dear Spiked,

I see that you are campaigning for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU). According to an editorial by Brendan O’Neill Spiked are urging a Brexit on the grounds, (‘which trumps all of those reasons to stay, and trumps them hard’), that the EU thwarts ‘popular sovereignty, the crucial right of a people to consent to the political system they are governed by’. O’Neill tells us that we should vote to leave if we ‘think people should determine their political destinies’, if we ‘are optimistic about the future’, if we ‘prefer the adventure of uncertainty over the dull predictability of expert-delivered diktats’, and if we ‘prefer politics to be lively and unpredictable rather than paper-pushing and aloof’. All of this sounds great. But, and this is a BIG but, how is a vote to leave going to achieve any of these things? The reality is that a Brexit is not going to reinvigorate democracy in the UK.

The EU referendum has not come about because of any popular agitation. There is no popular demand for a Brexit, and no popular desire to remain in the EU. The EU referendum has come about because of machinations within the Conservative Party, fuelled in part by the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This elite concern regarding the EU is not because of the anti-democratic nature of the EU or its disdain of ordinary people, the political elite in the UK (from all the main parties) share this disdain and have for years been busying themselves with eroding democracy in the UK. The EU is not the problem, it is symptomatic of a deeper problem, which O’Neill acknowledges when he says that ‘The EU both expresses and expands the 21st-century crisis of democracy’. Taking sides in the referendum implies that the EU is the problem, rather than a symptom.

If we take the example of migration, arguably the one issue on which there has been some popular engagement with the referendum debate, we can see that the UK has done much more than the EU to stifle debate on this issue. Spiked Deputy Editor, Tom Slater, partially acknowledges this when he says that ‘immigration policy is the sharpest expression of the anti-democratic sentiment of European elites. This is particularly keen in the UK, where New Labour’s relaxing of the borders in the 2000s reflected not only an open contempt for popular sovereignty, but a barely veiled disgust for the blob-like demos itself’. The UK, not the EU, has been at the forefront of an anti-democratic approach to immigration. The New Labour government did display open contempt for popular sovereignty. Blair, Mandelson and the other career politicians of New Labour consolidated the anti-democratic internal operation of the Labour Party and treated the electorate as passive fodder who only needed to be mobilised at election time. They continued the trajectory, begun under Margaret Thatcher, of moving ever increasing areas of public life outside of the realm of public accountability.

Slater is too one-sided when he says that New Labour relaxed the borders in the 2000s. What they did was relax immigration controls for specific kinds of immigration, principally labour migration, while they toughened them for asylum-seekers and others who were deemed ‘illegal’ or unproductive. They introduced immigration controls that operate on the basis of encouraging those who would bring an immediate monetary benefit to the UK and deterring those who were deemed to be a potential burden to the public purse. New Labour initiated the policy of ‘managed migration’, (which continued under the Con-Dem coalition and now under the current Conservative government), in an attempt to treat immigration in a technocratic manner. It was designed to depoliticise the issue of immigration, not to make it into a political issue. The Conservatives have continued this ‘managed migration’ approach, but argue that in the context of austerity the UK does not have the capacity to absorb as many labour migrants as previously.

Slater is correct when he says that ‘if we want to open the borders, we need to win the argument first’. Where, however, is the radical, progressive argument in favour of open borders? Slater doesn’t provide us with an argument. During the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 and 2016 members of the public signed online petitionssent money,visited the camps in Calaisjoined protests, and even offered shelter in their own homes. These are actions that involve more than simply putting an X on a ballot paper. What has Spiked had to say about these examples of popular sovereignty in action?  They have been disparaged as exercises ‘in charity and public empathy, rather than a political issue about freedom of movement and human autonomy’. Protestors have been told that if they ‘want to help refugees’ they should ‘stop sobbing’. These arguments from Spiked read like barely veiled disgust for the demos, not like arguments for open borders.

Spiked is for open borders, but …. As Brendan O’Neill put it in September 2015: ‘spiked is about as open borders as you can get. But in Europe right now, there is a bigger problem than border control, and that is the cynical weakening of national borders, and of the popular sovereignty within those national borders’. This is an evasion of the difficult arguments. It is easier to rail against the bureaucrats in Brussels than make the case for open borders. It is easier to be cynical about the limitations of popular expressions of human empathy, than to engage with this empathy to make the case for a human-centred world. Spiked never engages with the difficult arguments on migration. What do we say to people who feel the harsh grind of austerity measures when they say that we can’t take in refugees because there is not enough to go around? We need to challenge this culture of limits, not by arguing for capitalist growth, but by pointing out that it is not immigrants who are responsible for austerity. We need to challenge the idea that there is not enough to go around and instead ask why the vast wealth that capitalism generates does not trickle down to the vast majority of society? In making these arguments we redraw the borders, from political demarcations of territory, to political demarcations between those who benefit from capitalism and have an interest in it being maintained, and the vast majority of us who do not.

Instead of recommending a vote to leave, it would be better to focus on the substantive issue and use the opportunity to argue for open borders, regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU. A more radical and progressive approach to the referendum would be to engage with the desire of the mass of people for a better world and repose the issue. Calling for the UK to ‘Leave’ only lends legitimacy to the elites’ pretence that the EU is the substantive issue.


  1. Very good article. Thanks for writing it. My only qualm is at the end, where you say: “regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU”. I would think it best, and consistent with your argument, to explicitly support UK remaining in the EU. Open borders is happening through such regional agreements. It won’t happen suddenly all over the globe. But I hope Brendan O’Neill will engage with your response. PS – May I run the article with due acknowledgements and link to the original at my blog, C21st Left?

  2. I had a very similar experience 8 years ago. It was after one of Israel’s ritual attacks on Gaza, I think it was Operation Cast Lead, when they killed about 1,500 people, lots of kids, used white phosphorous on UN schools etc.

    Spiked in the form of one Natalie Rothschild objected to my comparison of Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto. No matter that the last commander of the Warsaw Ghetto, Marek Edelman, had made such a comparison, Rothschild knew better.

    I therefore proposed to Brendan O’Neil a response and he was happy to carry one although he didn’t like me correcting factual mistakes of him, Furedi and Rothschild, as all 3 people had peddle similar Zionist claptrap and my article dealt with all 3.

    Well I sent my article in. no response. Sent it in again, still no resposne. So I emailed O’Neill at least twice to ask why he was ratting out on his agreement. No response. The only conclusion I can draw is that the commitment to free speech by Spiked is a charade. It is only free speech and debate within narrow parameters that doesn’t challenge the central core of Spike’s neo-conservative project.

    In short Spiked are true British hypocrites.

    I therefore penned a blog post ‘Spiked by Spiked’!

  3. Barry, the EU’s commitment to free movement is not the same as support for open borders. The EU is Fortress Europe, free movement internally has been achieved by raising external barriers. I would not call for people to support Fortress Europe against Fortress UK. The EU is no more progressive than the UK, and it is less democratic.

  4. Chris, I’d like to see borders abolished but it will take time and I much prefer a UK that does not require separate passports and immigration restrictions on travel between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to one that would. Ditto the 490 million people who inhabit the EU’s Schengen Area. I think open borders will happen through such regional arrangements initially and then the regions with free movement will link up.

  5. James Heartfield’s comment that he has posted Chris’ piece as a comment on the Spiked editorial, so Chris has no cause to complain, is grossly misleading and disingenuous.

    What Heartfield posted carefully omitted Chris’ introductory note (Popular sovereignty requires vigorous debate), thereby creating the impression that there had not been an initial submission to and rejection from Spiked.

    To set the record straight on that site, Chris posted his correspondence with Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, in the comments section below O’Neill’s editorial:


    March 7 at 6:23 AM


    I know that you are trying to encourage robust debate and to reinvigorate popular sovereignty. Can you please publish the attached critique of your editorial on the EU referendum, in this spirit of vigorous public debate.




    Mar 7 at 10:25 AM

    Thanks for this, Chris. But it isn’t quite right for us. Firstly because I feel it underestimates the extent to which spiked has argued that the EU expresses, rather than having created, national elites’ abandonment of democracy, a point
    we have made over and over. (Though I think you underestimate that the EU, once created, once empowered, goes on to play a key role in keeping in check popular sovereignty. It is far from a blameless entity. It does speed up the corrosion of democracy in a very real way.) Secondly, and more importantly, the piece feels too… internal. Which is a strange thing to say, I know, given there is no “internal” these days (and a good thing too in my view!) It reads too much like an old friend / supporter having a public disagreement with our content, and spiked is just too large and global for that kind of thing. If you want to redo it as a standalone piece making its own point – an article rather than a response to articles – I’d be happy to consider it.

    Cheers, hope all is well



    March 7 at 5:38 PM


    Thanks for getting back to me so promptly. I’m interested to hear that you think that I misrepresent Spiked’s view on the EU. I don’t think, however, that your opinion that I misrepresent the Spiked view is an argument against publishing my article. I think that is a good way to start a dialogue in order to clarify where Spiked stand and what the substance of my disagreements are. If I have misrepresented Spiked’s view that should come out in the ensuing debate.

    In your email you say that the EU expresses national elites abandonment of democracy, but you also say that the EU plays a key role in keeping popular sovereignty in check (hence, I assume, why you argue in Spiked that a ‘Leave’ vote will make a difference). I am arguing that a ‘Leave’ vote will not help to promote popular sovereignty, because the EU is symptomatic of the problem rather than a cause of it. If you think a ‘Leave’ vote will make a difference then you need to explain why and how, otherwise it is just an assertion. I think that the evidence shows that people do not trust any politicians, national or EU, hence Brexit will not make a difference to popular engagement in politics.

    Activity around the issue of immigration, however, (activity that Spiked disparage) suggests that engaging with the substantive issues is a route to promoting popular sovereignty. I am arguing that engaging with freedom, not as an abstract principle or a formal right, but as a practical issue – freedom of movement – that is being posed by the mass movement of people to Europe from the Middle-East, Africa and other parts of the global South, is a better approach to reinvigorating popular sovereignty. You are free to disagree, but I would expect you to articulate an argument that demonstrates why you are right and I am wrong.

    As for the point about the piece feeling too internal, this feels like you are saying that I have a private or personal disagreement with what Spiked are arguing. I don’t think that it is a question of personal differences, I think that they are political differences. When you ask if I could produce a stand alone article, you seem to accept that the standard of my writing is high enough for the “too large and global” Spiked audience. But when you ask for an article rather than a response to articles this comes across as you being averse to carrying criticism of Spiked on Spiked.

    I am not asking you to present my article as a disagreement WITHIN the Spiked team. I am assuming that your editorial is representative of the Spiked view, and my response is not. You could present my article as an example of the kind of robust debate that Spiked are trying to encourage, or you could present it as a viewpoint that is at odds with that of Spiked, but which you are publishing as part of your commitment to free speech. Either of these would allow you to carry a critical article and still present Spiked in a way that is consistent with the Spiked ‘brand’.

    Surely you should judge my argument on its intellectual merits as an argument, rather than judge it on who is making the argument (someone who has written for Living Marxism and for Spiked). I think that the argument I make raises issues that are fundamental to the discussion of the EU, Brexit and popular sovereignty.

    I wrote the piece to encourage debate on issues that are high on the political agenda today. I do not envisage any difficulty getting it published, it is more a matter of where, rather than whether it will be published. I hope that you will reconsider and publish my article as part of a debate on topics that you, as Spiked, have raised.




    March 9 at 10:09 AM

    Sorry, Chris, it’s just not right for us, for the reasons I explained in my first email. Good luck placing it elsewhere and please do send us more article ideas!




    March 9 at 11:09 AM


    A missed opportunity, I think. But we can agree to disagree.

    Thanks for getting back to me



    March 27 at 12:23 PM

    Dear Brendan

    Further to our correspondence on my Open Letter critiquing your stance on the EU referendum. I have found an outlet for the article on the Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) website With Sober Senses (http://www.marxisthumanistinit… ).

    Instead of engaging with the substance of the argument in the article, however, James Heartfield has attempted to undermine my claim that you refused to publish my criticisms. He has cut and pasted my criticisms from the MHI website into the comment section of the editorial that I was criticising. He has then gone onto Facebook and implied that I am lying about you rejecting my Open Letter.

    Can you please either: a) remove his post from Spiked, or, b) post a visible and easy to find correction to James Heartfield’s comment on Spiked, saying:

    ‘Contrary to the impression that James Heartfield gives in this post, Chris Gilligan did submit an Open Letter, criticising the Spiked editorial ‘Love democracy? Then leave the EU’. Chris Gilligan did urge me as editor to publish his Open Letter as a contribution to the rigorous debate that Spiked want to have on the EU referendum, but Spiked declined to publish it’.

    Can you also go onto the Facebook discussion where James Heartfield has implied that I am lying and add a corrective. If you choose option a) above please state on the FB discussion thread that James Heartfield’s post has been removed from Spiked because the postee erroneously implied that his posting was endorsed by the editor, which it has not been. If you choose option b) above please state on the FB discussion thread that you have added a correction to James Heartfield’s comment on Spiked, and provide a link from FB to your correction.

    If you are not willing to adopt either of these options, or suggest an alternative that we find mutually acceptable, I will feel compelled to publish in full our email correspondence on my article in an effort to counter James Heartfield’s underhand attempts to portray me as dishonest.

    I think that your decision to decline to publish my Open Letter has been a missed opportunity to clarify what Spiked are saying on the EU referendum and what my political differences are with that stance. I still think that it is worth Spiked engaging with the two key points of difference that I raise in the Open Letter: that a ‘Leave’ vote will not reinvigorate popular sovereignty because it is an elite concern, not an issue that has engaged the public, and; that grassroots activity in support of migrants is a positive expression of human empathy that provides grounds on which popular sovereignty can be built, rather than something to be disparaged as virtue signalling.

    I think that you decision to decline to publish my Open Letter has also, unfortunately, raised a question mark over Spiked’s commitment to free speech. I thought that your commitment to free speech was on the grounds that it is necessary in order to clarify the issues at stake in any discussion, rather than that you believe in free speech for its own sake. Your decision to reject my Open Letter rather than engage with the substance of the arguments has evaded clarifying the issues at stake in my disagreement with your stance on the EU referendum.

    For this reason, I hope that you will rethink your earlier decision and provide an appropriate forum on the Spiked website for the kind of rigorous debate that Spiked claims to stand for. The Guardian, which is not an advocate of free speech, does provide a format (an exchange of letters, between two people who have a political difference on an issue) that Spiked might consider adapting (here is a link to an example involving Claire Fox –… ).

    Whether or not you choose to reconsider your decision to reject my Open Letter, I look forward to further opportunities to engage in rigorous public discussion on how we can best realise human freedom.

    Kind regards



    March 27 at 12:48 PM

    If I don’t do as you say, you will publish our private correspondence? Is this blackmail? And now you want your contribution to spiked’s debate taken off spiked when previously you wanted it on spiked? Chris, you are confused. I won’t be doing any of these things, not least because I have a million other things to be getting on with. Feel free to publish our correspondence, and please also include your latest
    email in that.




    March 27 at 3:13 PM

    Dear Brendan

    Thank you for your prompt reply. You are entitled to your opinion, as am I. We obviously disagree on some key points. Thank you for permitting me to publish our correspondence, so that a wider public have the information that will allow them to decide for themselves.

    I will send you a link to the material once it is published so that you can respond there if you wish.



  6. The author (Gilligan) was right to suggest that ‘The EU referendum has [now: did] not come about because of any popular agitation’. He was wrong, however, to conclude that ‘The reality is that a Brexit is not going to reinvigorate democracy in the UK’. It did. Every debate since has made reference to it. Accordingly, it is time for him to revise his position (and analysis).

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