The UK version of parliamentary democracy has its fault lines, but one of its strengths is that it offers, indeed insists upon, a measured and informed debate on issues of national importance. A basic requirement of MPs is that they act, not as delegates from their constituencies, but as representatives charged with weighing the general good of the nation as a whole, not only the wishes of their local voters. And the two tier system enables the House of Lords to take a hard look at legislation proposed by the House of Commons and act as a brake if judged necessary.
It would take quite a feat of imagination to claim convincingly that Britain’s Brexit referendum was held in an atmosphere of measured and informed debate. Far from it. There were sincere and serious discussions in the media but these were often overshadowed by a wider ill-informed stridency. The most visible public face of the campaigns, the televised debates involving politicians, were remarkable for their lack of restraint, ignorance of the subject matter and for manipulative disinformation. There could have been no clearer sign that the voice of authority is not necessarily the voice of truth which, considering the circumstances, must rank as a failure of communication equal to that which led to British participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The future in limbo
There are obvious pitfalls in holding referendums on complex matters in a country where parliamentary government has long been the order of the day. Seen through the eyes of a centralised leadership the prospects might look golden all the way through; a well-informed public, responsible media and a dispassionate search for practical reality. But this is the realm of fantasy even in a ‘mature’ democracy and the Brexit referendum must have jolted some deeply held assumptions. Facts were in short supply, slogans and weasel words, short-sighted emotional highs took their place. And this narrowed much of the public debate down to a kind of insular navel gazing, fixed vision staring down a dark passage to some utopian future or mythical English past.
There were few checks and balances on how opinion was formed, whether it was based on solid argument or the froth of minds over-excited by the latest flashy demagogue or extremist press headline. In the UK in June 2016 there seemed to be no generally accepted source of reliable opinion and information. This is a role normally played by Parliament. In short, the public and the country lacked a reliable compass in any direction and the void was quickly filled by those with the means and mouth to play to the crowd.
This media led avalanche of public outpourings might have seemed the epitome of modern democracy in action. Inevitably the voices of the masses generated an ugly undercurrent of vilification from extremists of different types. The right wing press ran a non-stop series of negative stories about immigrants and EU free movement, and a pro-remain MP was murdered in the week before the referendum, her killer apparently shouting ‘Britain first, this is for Britain’ or something similar. The restraining and unifying influence of Parliament had been removed and this remains partly the case to this day.
The tail wags the dog
As a demonstration of public judgement on the wisest course of action for the country as a whole the referendum was a sizeable failure. About 37% of the total electorate voted to leave and this represented only some 28% of the total population. In fact, allowing for those of the electorate who did not vote, some 29 million did not vote to leave. In the case of the ‘Remain’, vote these figures would be about the same, the percentages a little less. It should be noted that a proportion of those excluded from the vote obviously included young people whose future lives could be profoundly changed.
One would like to think that the voters pondered the wider issues facing the UK before they voted. This seems unlikely to have been the case except for a minority. Unfortunately government presentation of the remain case was inadequate and some of the important dimensions to the EU were more or less brushed aside during the campaigning. This tended to be framed solely in terms of money, the plus and minus of the trade and financial balance sheet which, significant though it is, is hardly the whole story and fired up some wildly distorted statistics and unlikely outcomes. There was also a strong anti-immigrant, anti-EU background music which went unchecked and nurtured the hidden veins of English xenophobia and nationalism in some quarters. This still bedevils public debate and distorts thinking.
In fact there is no reliable way of knowing completely why people voted the way they did in such a complex matter, or indeed why they decided not to vote. Public opinion surveys after the referendum cannot be regarded as totally reliable and the nature of the campaigns did not encourage mature thought. In fact the Electoral Commission declared that the referendum had glaring democratic deficiencies and that people were ‘ill informed’. It can hardly be held up as a substitute for the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.
Politics takes over.
None of this has stopped the PM, Mrs May, from declaring the result to have been an anti- immigration vote while omitting to give the public any accurate picture of the impact of immigration. Nor did it stop her having recourse to the Royal Prerogative to try to bypass Parliament in triggering Article 50. The Royal Prerogative is a body of authority, privilege and other powers recognised as the sole prerogative of the sovereign as a source of executive powers of the government. It is a relic of the deep past when the monarch was directly involved in government. Some would argue that it is fit only for a museum and, significantly, a court case against Mrs May’s decision was brought by a member of the public. The High Court ruled that the PM could not invoke the Royal Prerogative for this purpose; needless to say May has appealed and a decision from the Supreme Court is awaited.
In the months following the referendum the result, that is the ‘decision’ of 37.7% of the electorate, 28% of the population, has metamorphosed into the ‘wishes of the people’ and, remarkably, May stated: ‘Those people who argue that Article 50 can only be triggered after agreement in both Houses of Parliament are not standing up for democracy; they are trying to subvert it’’. It seems evident that May is putting the wishes of the extreme right of the Conservative Party before the national interest.
The past strikes back?
Is this the revenge of the Empire? Does the ghost of Henry VIII waft through No.10 Downing Street? Is British democracy to be thrust aside because of a minority group of EU haters, Anglo-centric throwbacks locked in some mythical version of English history and yearning for some fantasy nexus of Commonwealth countries, plus of course, the might of the USA, as the supreme world power block? Is this witch’s brew of ignorance and short sightedness to be par for the course in the coming years? Is the whole implausible scenario a consequence of an understanding given to those who supported May’s selection as leader of the Conservative Party and therefore PM, or was May’s stance even a condition of their support?
We shall not know these things yet but we have seen political discourse poisoned by extreme right-wing Eurosceptic MPs who abuse anyone who disagrees with them. We have seen the language of political intolerance taken to the extreme in the right wing press, High Court judges condemned as enemies of the people for doing their job, senior officials attacked and vituperation heaped on the Confederation of British Business and any businesses that did not sign up to Brexit. Those who should know better have proposed that the British negotiating team in Brussels should be led by staff in favour of Brexit. This sort of behaviour by those who set national standards has inevitably given those who are so inclined the green light for a kind of latent and violent English nationalism; we have seen hate crimes, spite and intolerance towards EU immigrants and, in some instances, death.
Much, if not all of this, and the stark divisions now undermining the UK’s coherence, could have been avoided if May and her advisors had had the courage and statesmanlike insight not to have played politics but to have made it quite clear that the referendum result, while expressing the wishes of those who voted, needed to be considered as part, albeit a very important part, of a judgement to be made with the all the circumstances in mind, including the referendum’s manifest flaws and the long term interests of the whole of the UK. And the place for this is Parliament. .It should be added that, viewed from either side of the Brexit debate, there is a strong argument for maintaining that May should have no authority or mandate to adopt a negotiating position vis a vis the EU without reference to the wishes of the British people expressed through their elected representatives. The essence of democracy should not be so easily be cast aside because of a putative negotiating stance. One cannot help feeling that a de Gaulle, an Adenauer or Churchill would have framed the national debate differently.
A fault-line in the British system of democracy is that it can put into place a government which does not have the support at the ballot box of the majority of the electorate. May’s government was elected with around 37% of the vote which represented some 25% of registered voters. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats labelled the system a farce but, worse perhaps, it can encourage the rise of political bullying when the opposition is weak, as has been evident in the last six months. To this one might add the thought that a country like Britain that has no written constitution must rely to a large extent on the wisdom and integrity of its leaders. Unfortunately these qualities have been in short supply recently.
Marcus John, 16 January 2017