Britain is in a mess: Is a different democracy possible?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 4th 2019

Nearly everyone now agrees that British politics isn’t working – and that our political system, politicians and Parliament are in a mess and broken. Even more than this, our economic system and social contract have long ago become frayed, discredited and stopped working for the interests of the vast majority of people.

This is the context in which the country is convulsed by Brexit. Everywhere people are talking, thinking and worrying about it. Out on a Saturday night in a local Indian restaurant on Glasgow’s Southside, I sat near four men in their 30s who worked in the construction industry, who proceeded to have a thoughtful, informed conversation about Brexit, with none of them uber-partisan.

Three years of public conversation on affairs of state could be seen as a positive in many circumstances: a mass act of political education and citizenship indicating the health of the body politic. But Brexit has been the opposite of that. Such is the anger, dismay and feelings of betrayal on both the Remain and Leave sides, and as critically, mutual incomprehension of the most fanatical true believers in each tribe in the opposing side. This has resulted in the UK Parliament being in constitutional and political gridlock for the past three years.

This has taken place against a backdrop of decline in trust and legitimacy in politicians and political institutions, evident pre-Brexit and accelerated post-2016. It is more than likely things will get worse before they get any better. Already Nigel Farage has created a party, the Brexit Party, with no members and democratic structures, which won the UK European elections. This could be a harbinger of the politics to come: of populist, authoritarian, opportunist, one man as leader, parties, some of which will fan anger and resentments at the political classes, which has been building over the past couple of years.

This is our likely future unless we change. There are many reasons why we have ended up in this place – on Europe – with the acts of many individuals and institutions contributing to this mess. These include the following parties and actions.

  1. Tony Blair’s failure to lead a pro-European coalition of public opinion:

It seems like another world now but Tony Blair was elected in 1997 on a pro-European manifesto and public mood and was applauded by EU leaders. Yet, he failed to lead pro-European sentiment in the UK, and after being boxed in by Gordon Brown on the euro, ended up promising a referendum on an European constitution in the run-up to the 2004 European elections which never happened.

  1. David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in 2013:

Cameron’s January 2013 Bloomberg speech promised an in/out EU referendum which he thought he would never have to deliver. He then much to his surprise won an overall majority in 2015 and had to act on his own pledge.

  1. Cameron and the 2016 referendum:

Cameron then conducted his ill-fated, half-hearted ‘renegotiations’ with the EU in which he gained nothing of substance, believing he could repeat the same trick as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, failing to recognise that the UK was very different from then. He subsequently timed the 2016 referendum against the backdrop of the European migration crisis of the previous summer, and conducted it with the other main parties and their leadership, in an inept, complacent establishment campaign which Remain lost.

  1. Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader:

Jeremy Corbyn has all his adult life been a convinced Eurosceptic and became Labour leader in 2015. He and his office did as much as they could to undermine the Labour Remain campaign in the referendum: a point confirmed by the head of Labour’s campaign, Alan Johnson, and journalist Tim Shipman. Labour voters split 63:37 for Remain which if it had been higher would have produced a closer result, but even more acutely, a pro-EU Labour may have shifted votes elsewhere, a point Corbyn never addresses post-2016.

  1. Theresa May’s ‘Red Lines’ in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech:

May defined Brexit as leaving the customs union, single market and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This was met with near universal approval from Tory MPs, including hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group. It also by committing to taking the UK out of the customs union and single market, laid the grounds for the Northern Ireland-Ireland border problem.

  1. Article 50 approved without any UK agreed version of Leave:

On February 1st 2017 the House of Commons voted by 498 to 114 to give the May administration the authority to trigger Article 50 and begin the two year timetable to the UK leaving the EU on March 29th 2019. All SNP, Plaid Cymru and Lib Dem MPs, along with 47 Labour MPs, voted against triggering Article 50. The countdown to Brexit had begun, but the UK Government had no agreed version of Leave and spent most of the next two years trying to find a Brexit plan which could win a parliamentary majority: not aided by May calling a general election and losing her majority.

  1. May’s Deal and the Tory Hardliners:

Three times Theresa May brought her Withdrawal Agreement to the House of Commons and three times she was defeated by a combination of opposition MPs and the Brexit irreconcilables: the self-titled Tory ‘Spartans’. This latter group became more and more uncompromising in their vision of Brexit, demanding a version of withdrawal which went far beyond the May deal, and which normalised the notion of a No Deal Brexit: something no advanced developed country has undertaken in the modern age, unilaterally tearing up decades of treaties, legislation and regulations.

But the above is only the immediate story. Brexit has a much longer backstory, reaching back into that part of the English political imagination on right and left, Thatcherite, Powellite, Bennite and Corbynite, never came to terms with the UK as an European state and member of the EU. Add to that the anger, anxiety and dismay which followed the financial crisis of 2008, followed by a decade of flatlining living standards, and all the conditions have been brewing for a populist backlash.

Politics and democracy are dramatically changing and in recent years the UK has seen more use of referendums, locally, in the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not so far England), and across the UK. Many people now think for understandable reasons that they would prefer not to have any further contestable votes such as 2014 and 2016, and believe that they cause too much bitterness and division.

Referendums used to be considered ‘unBritish’. This was a view put forward by the likes of Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill who associated them with the demagoguery and mass manipulation of fascist dictatorships.

A prescient take on Brexit Britain can be found in Peter Cook’s ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’ from 1970: a cinematic satire on politics, PR, advertising and the emergence of opinion polls as influential. In it Cook plays a ruthless, unprincipled Tory Prime Minister who incessantly holds referendums on every subject to make people increasingly cynical. He then gains dictatorial power by winning a landslide victory on the promise of holding no more referendums. This isn’t far removed from the trajectory of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings and their style of politics, supporting prorogation, suspending Parliament, and pretending they are being forced into a general election and where this could take us.

Not just British politics, but what passes for the British constitution has been found wanting due to Brexit. But its fundamental faultlines and shortcomings have been evident for a long time and the current pressure points and crises have only brought to the boil what has been long simmering.

Meg Russell, head of the Constitution Unit, has noted the British constitution is a political, not legal set of arrangements based on convention and precedent, and that the Johnson government’s actions are literally tearing up such assumptions stating that ‘The rules are being torn up.’

This is the case for a written British constitution many argue, but is there really the political will and coalition to undertake such a scale of change, democratic movement and transformation? It would require Labour moving to a political position, of codifying and limiting the power of the political centre, which it has consciously avoided doing throughout all of its history.

Whatever happens at a British level Scotland could take its own small steps to learn from this mess and unsatisfactory state, and the experiences of both 2014 and 2016. For example, it would be controversial with some on her side, but Nicola Sturgeon could indicate that she was putting a winner threshold on any future independence referendum, at say 55% minimum. She could say that she has witnessed the divided politics and irresponsibility which has followed the 52:48 Brexit victory, and that Scotland has to aim for higher.

Politics in a country like the UK is not meant to be some absolute where the winners grind out a victory and the losers completely lose, irrespective of the wider effect on society. Brexit has shown the deep damage this does to the craft of politics, politicians and political institutions, and this is before we confront the self-harm of a No Deal Brexit. We have to learn from this and not repeat this destructive behaviour into the future, and if the UK political classes find it impossible to change, then we in Scotland should make a start at changing course ourselves.