John Gloster-Smith discusses the current situation with Brexit and how it has gone from an issue about outside interference to become one of internal disruption.

On the BBC programme The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, the Brexiter Trade Secretary Liam Fox asked the seemingly innocent question, “Is government the servant of parliament or is government the servant of the people?” In that very question lies the dangerous territory that Brexiteers have been flirting with since the UK’s arguably disastrous 2016 Referendum. The now-bitter clashes that characterise the Brexit debate in the UK are ostensibly about what, if any, are the terms on which the UK wishes to leave the EU, or even, for many whether it wishes to leave at all. Yet, in reality the domination of British politics by the Brexit controversy masks far deeper issues. Fintan O’Toole remarked in one of his insightful articles recently that Brexit “was never about Europe. Brexit is Britain’s reckoning with itself.” I would add that, with Fox’s question in mind, it is also Britain’s reckoning with democracy itself.

The “mother of Parliaments”

The UK, which in its traditionally aloof way has prided itself on its democracy, often congratulated itself on how it peacefully and gradually transitioned from a monarch-led to a representative Parliamentary system of democratic government, often called the Westminster Model. This model has been imitated in a number of other countries. Yet the traumatic shock of the 2016 vote has cut through these centuries of smug complacency and revealed to the eye the naked truth that all is very much not well with its body politic. In this it is of course not alone. The crisis of democracy is one that is impacting many so-called advanced countries across the globe, as populism sweeps in from the right and “illiberal democracy” replaces traditional liberal systems in certain countries.

Origins of Brexit

The origins of the Brexit vote are still being analysed in academic circles. However one useful book, on populism in general, “National Populism” by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (Penguin, 2018), has an invaluable way of presenting the populist phenomena, both for the UK but also for other countries. They argue, to very briefly summarise, that it is about “the four D’s”:

  • Distrust of liberal democracy’s ability to connect with the needs of “left behind” people hit by marginalisation, globalisation and automation. Hence the references to a self-serving, affluent “political class” out of touch with “the people”, for example
  • Destruction of communities and a traditional way of life and an undermining of values, as seen in unemployment, unrestricted immigration and the LGBTQ revolution in social mores
  • Deprivation, or relative deprivation, as seen in the impoverishment and neglect of former traditional industrial working-class communities, the attack on the welfare state by neo-liberalism, rising inequality, deregulation and privatisation, insecure zero-hour contracts, and low pay, embracing not just the traditional working class but also increasingly a “squeezed middle” class
  • Dealignment, as voters loosen their traditional attachments to the major parties, become more volatile in their voting behaviour and more willing to vote for more extreme right wing parties, such as UKIP in the UK.

Where is the EU?

When one looks at the real issues driving the Brexit vote, the one word missing is the EU. This is not to say that the UK doesn’t have its problems with the EU, or the EU with Britain for that matter! It is well-known that there was no real attempt by the Remain side to actually actively sell the positives of EU membership other than the economic one, which latter was skilfully re-positioned by the Leave side as “Project Fear”. Britain has long had a half-hearted commitment to the EU, and seen it primarily as an economic relationship, and arguably it is that neglect that got its “comeuppance” in the result. Yet the real problems are clearly those within the UK.

Viability of democracy

Yet when one examines the causes of Brexit, there is a very potent mix that was decades in the making, but sharpened by the Great Recession of 2008 and the impact of austerity. What the 2016 referendum did was to light the fuse. To read the literature on Brexit is to notice how strong is a powerful undercurrent of a questioning of the viability of the British state and of its democracy.

Former British PM David Cameron on the day of his resignation following the Brexit resultThe referendum, a device often associated in the past with intending dictators, is not a settled part of Britain’s famously or notoriously “unwritten” constitution. Moreover, it’s use as a device to attempt to settle the Tory party internal battle over the EU was naïve in the extreme. What the referendum did was strike a massive blow against the UK system of Parliamentary government. Britain has for centuries been governed by the latter and, since 1928, elected MPs by universal suffrage to pass laws introduced and guided through Parliament by the executive. The referendum introduced a plebiscitary method whereby a simple question, on a profound and complex issue, without previous policy development and negotiation with the EU, was presented to an uncomprehending British public to be decided by a simple Yes/No response. The system of representative government was blown apart and has been battling the consequences ever since.

Mesmerised by a simple vote

Since then, the legislature and executive have acted as if mesmerised by that vote. It had been and still is very de-stabilising, not the least the unleashing of an aggressive and distinctively English xenophobic and racist nationalism. Questioning of aspects of the response to the vote are met with denunciations like “enemies of the people”. Moreover, the Tory party, whose internal conflict this has been a lot about, are led by a strident and traditional English nationalism in The European Research Group (ERG). Prime Minister May has attempted a negotiated solution, but all along, and even now when needing to compromise after her EU deal was defeated, has defaulted to an obeisance to this right-wing faction commanding at a maximum about 100 MPs. Her knee-jerk response has been that the referendum result must be respected and that is “Brexit means Brexit”, despite the enormous practical issues involved.

However, Parliament is not a Brexit one. May also held an election in 2017 and that returned a Parliament in which she could only govern with the deeply Protestant and socially conservative Northern Irish party, the DUP. Thus she lacks the wholehearted consent of the electorate to implement the practical detail of that vague question of 2016. Indeed, the consequences are only too plain to see. Having failed to get through her EU deal, she seems to be flirting with an alternative No Deal Brexit, with the massive shock and upheaval that that would involve, cheered on by the ERG and a very vocal and growing countrywide movement.

Parliament asserts itself

May has struggled to avoid obtaining Parliamentary consent, initially attempting to enforce Brexit through the royal prerogative, but gradually being forced to obtain that consent by a moderate, cross-party alliance. At present that alliance is attempting to prevent a No Deal Brexit by taking over Parliamentary control of the Brexit process from the government, a legal revolution unheard of in modern times. It is of course hotly disputed by Brexiters, who see their dream being at the very least put on hold, as attempts are made to find more consensual solutions to what is in reality a complex and intractable problem. Meanwhile the Brexit press screams “betrayal” and Nigel Farage threatens to come back into UK politics at the head of a new Brexit party, and is busy campaigning in the country.

A question of democracy

At the heart of this problem lies a question of democracy. What really focused the Brexit campaign was a belief that Westminster democracy was not serving the needs of important sections of the UK, particularly but not exclusively in England. Much was made, well before the referendum, of the “democratic deficit”, that government and Parliament were insufficiently responsive. Hence the notion of “distrust” in Eatwell and Goodwin’s book. What the referendum did is provide an opportunity for that feeling to be released in a way that was not masked by the two-party system and the intermediary role of an MP. It was in a sense an electoral coalition of populist alienation and ERG-led patrician Conservatism, the latter with a long-term grievance about the EU. This introduced a notion that “popular sovereignty” was a player in Britain’s constitutional arrangements, that the people “had spoken”, albeit by a very controversially small margin of 52% to 48%, and that the country’s representatives, even elected the next year with an even less convincing result, had to act subserviently to that verdict.

The issue of legitimacy

This brings me back to the question by Mr Fox at the start of this article, about whether government is answerable, in my words, to Parliament or to the people. The referendum has by its very nature thrown the British body politic into confusion, because in part it raises the very question as to what creates democratic legitimacy.

So far, it seems not to be working, since large sections dispute what that vote means and whether or how it should be honoured, such as, to name a few, whether the four nations comprising the UK should be separately consulted, since two voted to Remain, whether a second referendum should be held now that a deal has been negotiated, whether a simplistic vote is a sufficient mandate for a complex and massive change, whether the electorate voted for this or that consequence, such as a No Deal Brexit or membership of a customs union, and so on. Indeed to make practical policy choices renders the proponent liable to the charge of “betraying the people” even though that is in reality a charge by those in disagreement with the particular policy. Indeed the very interpretation of the vote poses issues, each side arguing for their own version. What after all does “Leave” mean in the context of complex treaties and regulations governing trade and commerce impacting everyday life of masses of people?

This in turn brings me back to Fintan O’Toole’s observation that the real problem Britain has is with itself. The 2016 vote has revealed a nation, or more accurately nations, ill-at-ease with itself let alone its partners and the wider world. The country is fragmented, divided in families, communities, regions, and nations. It begs fundamental questions about the nature of democracy and unleashed forces that will take a long time and probably radical change to resolve.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/


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    1. Erm, Mr Former History and Politics Teacher, where you’ve written
      “The UK, . . . . often congratulated itself on how it peacefully and gradually transitioned from a monarch-led to a representative Parliamentary system of democratic government. . . ”
      Oughtn’t you mention the rather important and not at all peaceful English Civil War, culminating in the Putney Debates which made great strides in setting roles and boundaries for our constitutional entities?
      We used to get taught all of this in history lessons at school not so long ago. Is this something that’s been quietly dropped from the syllabus?

      1. Hi Diana, Thank you for your observations and for the opportunity to explain a little bit about the UK’s constitutional evolution. In an article about a crisis of democracy today, needs of brevity required that such points of detail as you raise are omitted. I think on reflection I could add something about what you quote as being a perception, to make that clear, because what I was referring to was a widespread belief, particularly in the 19th Century, of what was called the Whig Interpretation of History. This view was that because there had been a “wise, beneficial and peaceful” revolution in 1688, the “Glorious Revolution”, where no significant, violent conflict occurred, there were no violent revolutions as occurred elsewhere in Europe. The view was that Britain had peacefully evolved a representative system of government, to become fully democratic in 1928 with full female suffrage. England and then Britain had seen a remarkable period of stability, which coincided with a period of increasing prosperity and imperial pretensions. So it had, it believed, cause to feel complacent, which I have suggested has been blown apart in 2016. You do however, refer to the English Civil War, with a particular reference to the Putney Debates of 1647, and with what I infer to be a suggestion that England’s Civil War played a far from peaceful part in this progress. However, this is not what occurred. The Putney Debates were a series of discussions between the Agitators chosen by the ranks of the New Model Army and the army generals, the Grandees, during a very difficult period between the first and second civil war, when the Army was negotiating with the King and the army ranks had in effect mutinied, presenting the Grandees with a series of demands, both material and constitutional, which included the demand for the vote to be given to all “freeborn” men (ie a limited extension of the franchise and to men only). This reflected the influence of a quasi-democratic movement called the Levellers. However, this brief interlude often marks the high point in the potential for wider political reform, since the Levellers were put down, as at Burford in 1649, and army discipline was restored. The Grandees had no intention of moving away from the largely landowning, propertied basis of representation or from an already much-needed redistribution of seats, that latter having to wait until 1832! After the King was executed in 1649 there were a series of very limited constitutional experiments, mainly for religious “reformation”, (eg. the Nominated or Barebones Assemly of 1653) but they were short-lived and the monarchical system was restored in 1660. It was only in 1688-9 and a little after that a significant change occurred, as I said peacefully (if you exclude an peaceful invasion by a Protestant Dutch army led by William of Orange in alliance with the Whigs!), when the succession was altered to legitimise the take-over by William and to ensure that it was a Protestant one, Parliament was guaranteed a place in the system of government, and a major addition to the unwritten constitution to guarantee certain rights and freedoms was made, the Bill of Rights. The attempts to restore Catholicism and probably to establish a more absolutist system such as was widespread in Europe, had been prevented. Arguably, if you set aside the Jacobite rebellions such 1715 and 1745, this put an end to the 17th conflicts between King and his mainly landowning subjects. I hope this account makes clear that no “great strides” were made in 1647. If anything the demands of the Levellers were not to see the light of day until perhaps the American Revolution against George III in 1776 or the extensions in the franchise that occurred between 1832 and 1928. It was as you can see very much not dropped in my neck of the woods!

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