It was Proudhon who argued that all property is theft, although Marx pointed out that the idea of theft itself presupposes the existence of the concept of property. Whatever, in common everyday language, we all have an understanding that theft is the unlawful removal of one person’s property by another. If a thief breaks into my house and makes off with my property, or if a conman turns up at my front door purporting to be someone he is not and persuades me with lies and deception to part with my property, most of us would understand that to be theft. And any attempt using lawful means to get that property back would be regarded by most of us as entirely legitimate and reasonable.
On today’s newsstand, I noticed the banner headline in the Daily Express claiming that “They really do want to steal your Brexit”.
It’s not the only time that I’ve seen the claim that any attempt to reverse Brexit is ‘theft’; and it isn’t only the Express which makes the claim. I can understand why those who have spent many years campaigning for Brexit will feel dismayed and let down if their referendum victory is somehow ‘stolen’ from them; but something can only be ‘stolen’ from someone if it were that person’s legitimately obtained property in the first place. Recovering stolen property by lawful means cannot itself be theft. And there was more than one conman involved in the initial theft.
It doesn’t matter here that the Remain campaign may not have had entirely clean hands; there was a great deal of hyperbole and exaggeration (although, as events are turning out, perhaps rather less than I thought at the time), and a certain unwillingness to address the future direction of travel of the EU. But none of that can excuse a campaign which those involved have subsequently admitted was based on direct and deliberate lies – some of which are still being repeated. Returning to the question of who stole what from whom, that means that the ownership of the property in question is, at best, disputed. And that in turn means that a means of arbitration and judgement is required. There is no better way of meeting that requirement than an honest debate about the real facts before a further and decisive vote.