Across the world, democracy is in crisis or has or is being eroded and replaced by authoritarian systems. It seems that revisioning politics is becoming a right wing project. The question should be asked as to whether it is safe to leave a democracy crisis in the hands of reactionary, nationalist populists. After all, we all know where the last project in extreme nationalism ended, or we should do.
The conflict over Brexit poses just such questions. It goes right to the heart of democracy. Brexit is a reactionary populist project, dominated by Farage, an unelected but very influential politician. It is the fear of the threat posed by Farage that has driven the Tory party to the right and to embrace the extreme medicine of a No Deal Brexit.
Is Brexit the right medicine for the national malaise?
Brexit is seen as the medicine for a national malaise. The question should be asked, is this the right prescription for the ills of the country? Many are aware that revisioning politics is needed but is Brexit the right approach?.
There are those who say that, as Eatwell and Goodwin argue in their book National Populism that populism is driven by disengagement from politics, a distrust of traditional representative government and its politicians, a self-serving and remote “political class”, a dealignment from traditional political parties and an embracing of new movements, a widespread sense of deprivation seen in growing poverty in the “left behind” regions of the UK, and a destruction of a traditional way of life and economic and social well-being and opportunity.
Brexiters argue that Brexit, leaving the EU, is the solution, although waiting in the wings lies a further does of neoliberalism to boot, from the stables of the very people who were associated with the austerity that helped give rise to the dissatisfactions described above. Their opponents argue that Brexit is a symptom, not the cause, and that radical social and economic reforms are needed to address these discontents. One could also add that fundamental, positive and democratic reform of the political system is also needed.
Democracy in danger
Democracy is a decision-making process whereby people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. When the mechanism starts to mafunction, democracy arguably cannot function. It is mafunctioning over the confusion between a referendum and a Parliament for the policy-making and resolution process. To ignore the “will of the people” expressed in a referendum is said to be undemocratic, and to overide the expressed wishes of a elected Parliament is also said to be undemocratic.
Democracy itself is in danger over Brexit. There is to begin with the contradiction posed by the resort to direct democracy, the 2016 referendum, within a representative system of government, the mandate of the former, with its far too vague “leave” word cutting across the policy-making and resolution mechanisms of the latter. There is also the conflict that has then occurred between a government intent on Brexit and claiming a mandate from the 2016 vote with a Parliament elected traditionally in 2017 and in which the Brexiter government failed to gain a majority. Thereafter Parliament has sort to have a say in the policies of Brexit and indeed whether there should be a No Deal Brexit, while the government has sort to avoid it, with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. This in itself should alarm any democrat.
Popular disengagment from politics
In the meantime, popular dissatisfaction grows.
This really sobering report by the respected Hansard Society about the scale of public disengagement with politics in the UK makes chilling reading. For example, the authors wrote
- “sizeable numbers are willing to entertain quite radical solutions that would challenge some of the basic tenets of our democracy.”
- And, “54% of the public say that Britain ‘needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’; and four in ten people think that many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament.”
- They conclude, “Unless something changes, and there is comprehensive reform of the culture and practice of representative politics, we are storing up some of the key ingredients of a potentially toxic recipe for the future of British politics.”
Yes, indeed, one might think. Yet one might also think that UK politicians either don’t get it, don’t want to get it, are too terrified of it, or actively seek it. Chilling indeed.