From an outside perspective, watching the UK tear itself apart over Brexit might look like some crazy pantomime of folly, where politicians seem content to play silly games divorced from reality rather as the Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. From a UK perspective, a crisis is unfolding that goes to the very heart of democracy itself, a conflict involving a dangerous form of populism.
Last weekend a massive demonstration took place in London involving over a million people, probably the biggest the UK has seen, demanding a second referendum on what is being proposed on Brexit. The country is now nearly evenly divided between Leavers and Remainers, with polls on whether to leave the EU showing a Remain lead of about 8% in the psephologist Professor John Curtice’s poll of polls. In fact the Leave/Remain divide has become the main dividing line in voting behaviour, along with age and education. Voters overwhelmingly think that Brexit is going badly and that politicians are handling it badly. Confidence in the system is at an all-time low.
The politics of deadlock
The polarisation among voters is mirrored in Parliament, the House of Commons, the representative chamber, being completely deadlocked. To everybody’s surprise, Prime Minister May clings tenuously to office, the least of evils and the nominal head of an utterly split Tory party. She has negotiated a deal with the EU for Brexit but cannot get it through Parliament. She has run down the clock to the Brexit deadline to try to force Parliament to agree her deal with the threat of a hugely damaging No Deal Brexit as the apparent alternative.
Meanwhile her real opponents, those not persuaded of Brexit, have been recovering from the mesmerism of the referendum vote of 2016 and are seeking, in the absence of effective and sound leadership in the national interest from May, to assert Parliamentary control over the process.
The Letwin amendment
Last night a vitally important vote successfully took place to enable Parliament to start to take control, on an amendment introduced by Oliver Letwin. To outsiders, the mechanics of the workings of the British House of Commons can seem strange and archaic. Yet what occurred was more very important, more so than it looks.
For one, the motion helped to frustrate the extremist Bexiteers, since it further pushes away their dream of a No Deal Brexit, and seeks to deprive them of their control over the process by the hold they have over May. Now, there will be a series of “indicative votes” to help MP’s find out what in Parliament would command a majority, a No Deal Brexit, which as been voted down twice now, May’s deal, a customs union with the EU, some form of the Norway relationship with the EU, the customs union and single market, a second referendum, or to remain in the EU. This is a debate that should have happened long ago, but for the hold that government has over Parliament and May’s over-rigid determination to pursue a particular solution, one that’s clearly been rejected.
A constitutional issue
However, there is more to it than that. Tories are complaining about last night’s vote in that it upsets the balance between the executive and the legislature on which our so-called great Westminister-model system is based, in Parliament are taking over the order of business in the House. I would suggest, in contrast, that it rather helps correct an imbalance, if followed through, and that it sets a precedent, which is important in our so-called “unwritten constitution”.
For ages certain political observers have commented that what we have in the UK is an “elective dictatorship”, whereby the government wins an election and implements its manifesto by relying on its party majority in the House of Commons and its control of the order paper. MPs are “whipped” to support the line decided by the PM and her/his ministers. Parliament scrutinises legislation and can amend it but has, till now, very limited scope for its own legislation. Some argue that Parliament has lacked power and that too much was concentrated in the PM and her/his circle. It hasn’t however been excessively abused, even if one allows for such events as the Iraq War crisis, the imposition of Thatcherism or the imposition of austerity, but I would maintain it has a stultifying effect on government’s function of being a representative and a reflector of public opinion in policy making. Indeed one could even say that this is what is partly behind the whole Brexit crisis, the disconnect between voters and MPs.
May has however been abusing this system and exposed its vulnerabilities. Brexit ministers are claiming, as the Trade Secretary Mr Fox has for example, that there is a prior obligation for Parliament to “respect the vote”, that the 2016 plebiscite takes precedence over the will of Parliament. This is the tool of dictators, which Hitler for example used. Many MPs last night complained that this argument has been repeatedly used to close down debate. Yet very many consider this argument to be dangerously fallacious, and that Parliament needs to take account of the massive opinion against it. as evident in recent massive London demonstration for a second vote or in a huge online petition of currently over 5.6 million signatures that has built rapidly, calling for Article 50 to be rescinded.
May keeps trying to deny such expressions of opposition, or the wishes of Parliament, and insist, despite her pretences, that it should be her deal or no deal. She keeps pivoting to the hard-right Brexiteer faction in her party, the misleadingly-called European Research Group or ERG, and thus it is this minority who effectively control government policy, a minority in Parliament and in the country.
Brexitism claims a false legitimacy
They claim a false legitimacy, that somehow a referendum vote on a vague question, on a policy that had not been developed, on claims that have subsequently been proved to be wrong, and with alleged electoral malpractice, should somehow supplant the considered views of elected representatives. This is a dangerous trend in British politics.
Last night’s vote blows this myth wide open. Finally Parliament has taken control of the Brexit process. It has of course to follow through and insist. But it has set a precedent. The Government no longer alone controls the House’s procedure. It is a revolution, a quiet one, but it is in response to a revolution being attempted by the Brextremists. It is they who are attempting to impose a revolution on Britain and are abusing our system of government in order to force this through. Thus it falls to our elected representatives, in what is still, arguably, a representative democracy, to assert themselves against a rogue government. Democracy in face of populism is itself at stake.