The Brexit conflict is at essence a struggle for the very heart of democracy itself

In the smoke and fury of battle, as the Brexit crisis gets closer to its climax, and allegations and counter-allegations, blame and counter-blame, propaganda and “fake news”, are flung back and forward across a now very bitter political divide, it can get hard to step back and take a look at the overview, at what the protagonists are really fighting about. Whichever way the conflict goes, leave or remain, at some point there will need to be a reckoning for democracy.

Many say that will be a huge economic price to pay, others that lives will be disrupted and livings destroyed, or others too a price in freedoms gained or lost. To this writer, a central reckoning will be the form that British democracy will take, and for British and non-British readers alike it’s worth pointing out that this crisis is also running in some other “Western” democracies in some form. One must ask, what is the real learning for democracy from the rise of national populism?

Two competing visions

Many comment that Britain is at a massive potential turning point, perhaps akin to Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 victory and the neoliberal transformation that ensued. That was when a new political dispensation was established, one that has remained in force at least until the 2008 Great Recession placed it in crisis. Some suggest that the Brexit crisis is a consequence of 2008, others that it goes back to the advent of Thatcherism, and others too to a more profound impact of relative economic and political decline.

Both sides, to varying degrees, offer different visions going forward. The Brexiter version is obviously to leave the EU, to among other things be free of alleged restrictions and perceived burdensome regulations, to regain sovereignty and be free to formulate one’s own foreign and trade policies. Yet this is now to be achieved under a different version to what seemed to be on offer in 2016, a “No Deal” Brexit with very disruptive consequences.

However, there is also a hidden agenda of further neoliberal reforms, the so-called “completion of the Thatcher revolution” with further shrinkage of the state, tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, and further reduction of the welfare state. There are those that say that a No Deal disruption is an ideal situation for such changes. PM Johnson has however been in effective election campaign mode, probably since his majority is in danger, and has made promises to spend money on the police, the NHS and schools, probably bidding for the Labour Brexiter vote. While the promises look different, they may not prove mutually inconsistent. Thus to contemplate the Vote Leave hard right Tory offering, one should look beyond the elephant in the room of Brexit to the underlying neoliberal agenda.

To look at the Remain side is to see a morass of different, competing parties, some more Remain than others, and all struggling to achieve unity against the apparently stronger Leave side. At the time of writing, it is hard to see how these groupings will combine, and it is possible that it will take the form of a Parliamentary move to legislate against No Deal. However, many feel that an election is at some point on the cards.

While it may seem hard to see an alternative dispensation in the various Remain groups, and that in itself is significant as a weakness, there is at least some consistency in a desire to retain an openness and connection to Europe and the wider world, to some extent a belief in the “four freedoms”, a shared democratic destiny, a single market and customs union and the common institutions and shared values within the EU. The Liberal Democrats, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru all share a thorough-going commitment to the EU and are clearly pro-Remain. All could be regarded as classic liberal democrats with some degree of a social reform agenda. Yet, two of these parties are also nationalist and one in particular, the SNP is demanding a referendum on independence. This in turn flags up one of the complications of the Remain side, that of Celtic nationalism and a possible break-up of the UK.

However Labour, the biggest opposition party, is more ambiguous, its leadership wanting to “face both ways”, to uphold the Leave vote in its Brexit constituencies and while also acknowledging the 80% of members and vast majority of Labour-leaning voters who wish to stay in the EU. The nearest to an alternative dispensation to neoliberal Brexitism is that of Labour, which offers such measures as higher taxation of the wealthy, a return to state control of privatised utilities and transport, state intervention to support and rebuild British industry, encouragement of cooperative enterprises, a major house-building programme after decades of the sale of state-provided housing, a renewed support for the NHS and education, a long-overdue reform of social care, a restored social benefits system, a strong emphasis on Green environmental policies, and infrastructure spending. There is a sense that with Corbyn’s Labour that the values of the post-1945 welfare state are being reborn in new clothes.

Thus one could say that two radically different alternative visions for the future are on offer. The difficulty for both sides is that one holds power and has an impetus and a stronger electoral support than the other parties individually, while the other looks divided, lacks leadership credibility and, since one party is probably unlikely to win power on its own, lacks a common front with other opponents of the Tories.

The social and economic discontents fuelling populist anti-politics

Yet to present the Brexit crisis as about two competing visions for change can miss the point of the underlying reality of the crisis, which is far more profound. One can argue that sets of policies on various issues of the day are one thing, important as they are to many people. Yet the Brexit crisis arose out of complex underlying social and economic discontents within the population. These are the “Fours D’s” (National Populism, Eatwell and Goodwin, UK, 2018): the Distrust of traditional liberal democrats who as a perceived “political elite” were felt no longer to reflect the needs of “ordinary people”; the Destruction of a traditional, largely white ethnic society, a way of life and a national identity through immigration; the relative Deprivation of large swathes of “left behind communities” hit by the impact of the policies of neoliberalism, ironically from the same political heritage as the current Brexiter movement, the loss of traditional industries and the decline of their communities; and finally the Dealignment of voters from the traditional parties who used to represent their views and an increasing support for largely right-wing Brexit-favouring parties.

Populist movements, in Britain and in some other European countries and the USA, have been able to tap into these widespread discontents. To such voters the traditional political system, to put it basically, has failed them. Instead support is being transferred to radical movements that promise discontinuity, to parties and leaders who, while in reality being from similar social and educational backgrounds to traditional politicians, have, like Nigel Farage, been able to pose as “ordinary people” as against the remote, self-interested “political class”.

It is in this context that the new Tory leader and PM, Johnson is pitching his anticipated election bid and the Brexit revolution as a “People versus the Politicians” election. His case is that by resisting the bid to leave the EU, now encapsulated as a No Deal Brexit, without Parliamentary consent, the “Westminster Class” has effectively colluded with the EU to undermine Brexit. He is able to draw upon the popular right-wing discontents and link both the Parliamentary efforts to stop his imposition of Brexit without Parliament’s consent with the EU’s determination to uphold the Withdrawal Agreement reached with May in 2018. Both are conflated as a resistance to “the will of the people” as expressed in the 2016 referendum.

There is of course a whole area of debate that can be entered into about this political position, both for and against. What is being focused on here is the underlying central core of the political conflict, which this writer sees as a fundamental disagreement about the nature of democracy and the interests it serves.

Two competing claims to legitimacy

There are two rival positions about democracy that lie at the heart of the Brexit divide, two positions that in another age would have caused a civil war. For let there be no doubt, this divide has split the country in two.

Populists claim to represent “the will of the people” against a remote class of self-interested politicians, and advocate a form of direct democracy through the referendum or online voting and the use of “strongman” leaders. In the UK, Brexiters claim legitimacy for their policies in the 2016 Referendum result. Thus Johnson claims a mandate to carry through a No Deal Brexit. He insists that to allow Parliament to discuss and delay would be “undemocratic”. Therefore he apparently intends to force through Brexit “by all means necessary”. His opponents argue that the referendum was advisory, that it is not a settled part of the UK constitution, that No Deal was not proposed in 2016, that such measures should be subject to Parliamentary consent as the elective, representative and legislative branch of government, and that the Tories failed to win the 2017 election and therefore don’t have a mandate according to the traditional interpretation of the UK constitution and system of government.

By refusing to allow Parliamentary consent to the intended No Deal Brexit, Johnson is flying in the face of the essentials of the British unwritten constitution and is provoking a full-scale constitutional crisis. He looks likely however to revert to the device of a general election, to be held after the 31 October Brexit deadline, and when Britain would by default have left the EU, to ex-post facto legitimise what he has done.

For those familiar with both British and other European countries’ histories, this sort of arbitrary manipulation of democracy has not ended well, and this applies also to the 17th century English Civil and the conflicts in Imperial and post-World War One Germany. In both sets of examples, strongly entrenched power centres have attempted to hold power and impose unpopular change, or change that threatened vital interests in society, often to preserve existing social and economic interests, and the resulting conflicts have caused enormous upheaval and suffering.

It could be that that is what faces the UK today. The notion of direct democracy is being used by an entrenched social and economic elite to preserve and extend power in the name of “the people”, so that it can unleash a further neoliberal revolution that would serve those interests and most harm the very impoverished marginalised groups that support it.

Set against it is a struggling putative coalition of groups with a mix of visions that are broadly favouring liberal democracy but with one group intent on a leftward shift towards an allegedly updated social democracy model. This opposition continues to support a representative model of democracy but in the dynamics of the conflict is being placed in the position of seeming to resist desired-for change.

Towards a new democratic vision

What can get lost however in all this is that the very opposition to Johnson contains the seeds of a more progressive democratic vision yet to be fully articulated.

In the 17th century, the conflict between King and Parliament often took a conservative direction from the perspective of Parliamentarians. Many wished to conserve what they saw as traditional liberties and religious practice against an innovative and absolutist monarchy. Yet out of the fire of the English (and Scottish) Civil Wars, emerged by 1688 or 1715 a new polity in which the authority of the Crown was firmly rooted in an elected Parliament, the rule of law and constitutional principles.

One could suggest that a further updating of the “Westminster Model” of representative government democracy is needed today. The Four D’s referred to earlier strongly suggest a very serious disconnect between government and governed. Yet, one could argue that the current struggles are highlighting a serious dysfunctionality that has helped lead to the current crisis.

In particular, government has since 1688 functioned on the principle of the “King (or Queen) in Parliament”, that elections produce a party capable of governing that, provided it commands the “confidence of the House” which is a majority, Her Majesty’s Government can govern with little restraint by Parliament. Indeed many have said that from the 1960’s this government has been an “elective dictatorship”. Increasingly power has become centralised in the government of the day and particularly the Prime Minister. Thus, for example, it has resisted Parliamentary consent to Brexit and has been forced to come to the House and bend to its will on Brexit. One could suggest that such over-centralisation has a stultifying effect throughout the system. The Brexit crisis has highlighted the relative weakness of Parliament and one could say that it is now attempting to regain a lost power. The struggle in this area could have a very beneficial outcome.

One can take the argument of democratic disempowerment further. Elections are based on a simple majority “First Past The Post” system, rather than PR as used in many other countries. This favours two alternative parties but under-represented minor parties and squeezes them out. The current multi-party situation however has exposed the flaws in the system, and the inability of parties to compromise in order to hold power. Given the crisis of legitimacy referred to above, were Johnson to gain a majority in an upcoming election based on one-third of the vote, he can claim legitimacy for Brexit, when in fact only a third of voters have voted for it. A PR system could help induce a behavioural shift in representation and government formation.

The integrity of the UK is now in question, and it is very possible that, if Brexit is imposed, the “Celtic Nations” of Scotland and Northern Ireland might go their own way, perhaps followed by Wales. Yet the British system has been over-centralised in Westminster and Whitehall for ages, and money and influence has flowed to London and the South-east while local government and local prosperity in the regions and nations has suffered. A de-centralisation of power is long overdue, a process already well under way in other countries, both to the regions and to, perhaps, a federal system for the UK as a whole.

Finally, in a perhaps necessarily incomplete and rapid summary of potential changes, the British unwritten constitution, while having survived various crises since 1688, has been shown to be very inadequate in the current situation of a rogue government seizing power and forcing through a massive change without the consent of the elective branch of government. A fully written constitution, an updated Bill of Rights, and a regulation of referendums is needed to preserve fundamental liberties fought for long ago and now, once again, sadly in danger.

Democracy must adjust to the evolving needs of the society it serves, and democrats need to have the courage to address what is not working and heal the disconnect that is fuelling a potentially dangerous and authoritarian shift under the guise of populism.

 

Article first published in europaunited.eu on 19 August 2019.

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