Just over a year ago I was speaking on a panel about Brexit at King’s College London with Richard Graham, Tory MP for Gloucester. “The democratic tradition” Graham said in sickly smooth tone 23 minutes in, “is much deeper in the UK than anywhere else in the European Union.” He continued “That is not a boast, but an observation.”
Graham’s words have been in my mind recently as I have struggled to make sense of the aftermath of the decision to postpone Brexit on 10th April… only for the UK government to then make precisely no forward progress on anything regarding Brexit in the weeks since.
Britain, with its democratic tradition so dear to Graham, cannot seem to find a way out of a political problem of its own making.
This, I think, is because British politics has a massive blind spot: it is blind to its own democratic deficiencies.
Now don’t misunderstand me: Germany, where I live now, and where I do my everyday politics as a member of the Grüne party, is no paradise. But I would argue it has such an attention to what went wrong in the past that it can better guard itself against the dangers of the present than the UK can.
The list of democratic deficiencies with the UK’s Brexit referendum is a long one. The Electoral Commission has fined pro-Brexit organisations Vote Leave and BeLeave for breaking campaign finance rules and the ICO fined Aaron Banks for illegal data practices. The result of the referendum, despite the corrupt campaign, can only stand because the referendum was officially only consultative. We still not have got to the bottom of the role of Cambridge Analytica in the whole thing. Plus as this excellent Prospect piece explains, the way the referendum was set up was completely wrong (and the Swiss do overturn badly run referendums), and as this super Richard Wyn Jones thread outlines, lessons as to how obtain “loser’s consent” were not learnt from the 1997 Welsh Assembly referendum case.
Meanwhile MPs in Westminster are no better at solving the conundrum. Despite the massive defeats for the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in the three Meaningful Votes, the government keeps on ploughing the same furrow. The Tories have flirted with a No Deal Brexit, not because it is a good policy, but because it prevents outright conflict within the Tory ranks. Tories repeat the trope that 80% of the population voted for pro-Brexit parties at the 2017 election. Meanwhile the Tories’ “offer” to Labour is no different than what is in the withdrawal agreement anyway, and both the Tories and Labour interpret loses for them and gains for the pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens in local elections as a sign that they need to get Brexit done. Really. Meanwhile Nigel Farage will not reveal who has donated £100k to his new Brexit party, and Channel 4 has revealed the connections of hardline Brexiters right to Robbie Gibb, ex-BBC and now head of Comms at Number 10.
Now I do not know what to do to solve all of this. Improved campaign finance rules, and a reform of the First Past the Post voting system, to make the Commons more representative, might be decent places to start, but that’s just my take.
The most important starting point is instead to acknowledge that British representative and direct democracy both have serious deficiencies. To date there has been no acceptance that there really is a problem. And this is not either with with the representative or the direct aspects of Britain’s democracy, but with both.
First, the referendum was badly set up and was corruptly run.
Second, there has been no debate about what referendums are good for, and where representative democracy is best.
Third, Britain’s two party system seems unable to solve any of this as both parties are so split on the EU issue.
The first of these is the most complex to solve. The British like to think of themselves as an honest bunch, but what has happened in British politics since 2015 is the very opposite of honest. But the British cannot accept they have a problem of political corruption.
This is not a case of being a sore loser. It is a matter, as in the Welsh Assembly case I cite above, of loser’s consent – to be able to accept a result one does not like. And to achieve that consent there needs to be consensus about the integrity of the process. That has been and still is sorely lacking. Until that is resolved, and the deep ills of British democracy acknowledged, the ill feeling from Brexit is only going to fester and deepen.
Who, I wonder, can step up and start to honestly discuss all of this?