John Gloster-Smith follows up on his recent piece on who wants control of Brexit and asks is it possible that the British democratic system is now facing fundamental crisis of no return?
Given the deadlock in the UK Parliament over the approval of the British Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, Parliament has been finally able to wrest control over the order of business from the government for two days of debate on its future options. This is in itself a potential constitutional innovation in UK terms.
Thus on Wednesday 27 March a series of indicative votes were held in the House of Commons, the representative chamber, on the various options for achieving Brexit, a debate that should have happened long ago but for the dominance of the executive. This was the first round of voting, another being intended for Monday, if that is that May before then does not succeed in passing her deal at the third attempt. The voting on Wednesday produced no clear winner in round one.
Is this more of the same inability to decide what we want?
Some have presented this as a failure, and that this is more evidence of the UK’s inability to decide what it wants. However another point of view is that this is the first part in a whittling-down process, where it emerged that two options were most popular, one for Britain to enter a customs union with the EU, and the second that whatever was agreed would be subject to a referendum to approve it or to remain in the EU.
It is easy and very tempting for the uncharitable to present yesterday’s fascinating events in Parliament as a charade undertaken by pompous irrelevancies who are utterly divorced from the reality of life in the UK and beyond. Yet what happened was a brave chance to step aside from the dominance of Parliament by the now-enfeebled executive and allow a cross-party consideration of what might be possible. This is a step forward, the result of long hours of effort by a backbench cross-party team of moderates who want to prevent a “hard” or No Deal Brexit and to constrain the extremists. This process must continue on Monday, although May will continue to try to undermine it as indeed she tried yesterday.
Politicians are being held in low esteem
The difficulty for many people is that Parliament and politicians have such a low reputation, a phenomenon not confined to Britain, and this is unfortunate if not dangerous for democracy. It has in itself helped fuel the rise of Brexitist populism, the notion that elected politicians are part of a corrupt or self-serving political elite remote from “the people” and that leaders with a direct connection to “the people” should take power. Nigel Farage is one example of this populist wave that is sweeping many countries. The populists have formed a tacit alliance with a patrician right-wing element in the British Parliament known as the European Research Group (ERG), led by people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson.
They have enjoyed considerable leverage over Prime Minister May and until now were able to push her into a more fundamentalist form of Brexit, making negotiations with the EU all but impossible and even to flirting with a no-deal Brexit with all its disastrous economic consequences, particularly but only for Britain. They have though, it seems, been checked by the determination of the above-mentioned cross-party alliance led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn and the Tories Oliver Letwin and John Boles, with the result that, to frustrate the Brexiteers, they seized control over the order of business to debate alternative options. This is an important step forward.
The problem, as I would see it, is however that the issue is much bigger than these individuals and groups who are in conflict over Brexit. The problem is also systemic. May has shown appallingly poor judgement and ability, and many are relieved that she has at least indicated that she will go, although, as Blair did, she could hang around longer than anybody wants. This is really a very complex crisis which is very hard to resolve in short time frames, which is why Brexit should really, from a statesperson’s perspective, be put on hold. Statespeople however are sadly in short supply.
This crisis is not just about whether to leave the UK or not. That is a massive issue but it is a scapegoat issue, although it holds strong echoes of the real problems in the disconnect between politics and ordinary life. This is really all about the UK’s relative decline, the marginalisation of communities and nations within the UK, globalisation, the Great Recession, austerity, rampant inequality, the long term effects of neo-liberalism, the failure of politics and politicians to adjust to these changing realities, the exclusive elitism of the Tory party, the seizure of power by extremists on both sides which exploited the weakness into which our politics have drifted, the changing nature in which politics operates, the failure of our institutions to modernise, the lack of a modern written constitution, the need for more federalism in our inter-nation arrangements, to mention a few of many factors at play.
The context is important
The weaknesses and poor judgement of politicians need to be seen in this context. To feel disconnected from something is arguably also to some degree a function of those feeling disconnected as it is those from whom one feels disconnected. We operate within a democracy and we are responsible as much as the politicians for how we work it. To blame politicians is the easy way out. We are part of the system. How we change it is the real dilemma.
My point is that this problem we are faced with, which is not unique to the UK but a disturbing manifestation of the global democratic crisis, can be over-simplified and painted in a very negative light as far as our democracy is concerned. The risk is that we fall into the same way of thinking as the anti-democrats, and blame the system. What that can indicate is that we are as much caught up in the dynamic as the politicians with whom we can feel such exasperation.
It is brave politicians who can say that we have a massive crisis on our hands and that we need to work out solutions that will restore harmony and balance. That was what many MP’s were doing and saying yesterday, even as their Prime Minister and the ERG worked to try to undermine them.
This is a crisis of British democracy on a very fundamental scale, and it will take a lot of working out. We are, I fear to say, only in the early phases of that, and the danger is that it can slide deeper into greater conflict, like a slow civil war.