Image: UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Credit: Stefan Roussea/PA. All rights reserved
For the last two years, British politics has seemed to have nothing to do with me, as I watch a squabble between two ideological sects, their members spread across the two main parties and incapable of resolving anything. They never talk about the things I think need talking about, and every pronouncement they make contains more questions than answers – particularly these ones:
1. “Brexit has been an exercise in democracy”
What could be more democratic than a referendum? One question, two clear choices, everyone gets heard, an unambiguous result leading to a straightforward course of action. So why are we still arguing so ferociously over it? Is it because the losers refuse to abide by the democratic result? Or because it is not clear who has decided what?
Brexit has not shown British democracy at its best, as some people claim, but at its worst. It has revealed how confused and ambiguous is our political system. An apparently simple question has been spun into an expensive, time-consuming farce in which no one can agree who decides how we decide how to decide. Who is in charge? Parliament? The government? The people? Curiously, it is the House of Lords that has shown most nous and which has given us an insight into the shortcomings of the convoluted constitution.
The referendum and its aftermath have revealed structural problems in our democracy – at the level of the individual voter (the result could be interpreted as a cry of political impotence). And at the level of parliament (what is it for if the people decide matters directly and party bosses Whip their MPs into submission?). And at the level of government (should the prime minister really be able to deny parliament a meaningful vote about anything?).
All the referendum seems to have resulted in are vague if not impossible demands on the negotiators and open hostility between the government, the Supreme Court and the House of Lords. A referendum called to resolve differences has exacerbated divisions everywhere and generated endless mistrust.
I’m not sure how many ordinary people still feel represented in the political system. After the referendum my MP politely told me that he would not be representing me any more. He told me he was bound to do whatever the government thought the result meant, irrespective of the vote in his constituency. He might as well have declared himself redundant.
2. “There was a full debate before the referendum.”
Democracy is as much about talking to each other as about voting. That means talking vertically (elites to plebs, plebs to elites) but also horizontally (pleb to pleb). Healthy debate requires the presentation of reliable information, not – as we’ve had far too much of recently – misrepresenting the other side, or issuing insults and threats.
Public debate has not included all concerned parties but instead has been restricted to two extreme sides of the political elite claiming to speak for enormous groups of people.
There is no neutral forum. The leading newspaper empires have taken sides and the BBC has been so disorientated that it has not fulfilled its proper function of orchestrating the required debate.
I have never heard anyone speak up for those who think the EU is a terrible thing but on balance, the UK should stay in for a little while longer and figure out the best course of action calmly.
3. “There were two alternative plans on offer in the referendum”
The Leave campaign did not have a concrete plan of action (how to leave) nor anyone in public office who would take responsibility for its policies – that lot fell by muggins turn, without a vote, to the current reluctant prime minister.
Remain didn’t offer anything other than “stay in the EU” under whatever conditions necessary.
Only a blinkered ideologist believes there are two sides to every story. Usually there are many more.
There should have been at least two other projects put to the public: Remain but under different conditions (for example, insisting on more democracy in the EU) and Leave under certain criteria – partially, perhaps, or gradually or tentatively? Had there been more nuances presented we would have a much clearer idea of what to do now.
The referendum ballot paper was sketchy in the extreme. It didn’t say anything about gradations of customs unions, single markets, security co-operation, or what to do about the Irish border. You cannot make such things up on the hoof according to ideology. You certainly cannot make them up and inform parliament of a fait accompli.
No one signs off the final plans for a new house based on a one sentence description by the architect. That might be enough to give the project the go-ahead, but the wise client will always insist on inspecting the work in progress and, if necessary, exercising a veto.
4. “In a democracy, the winner takes all and the loser shuts up”
The popular-tabloid notion of democracy is that the winner takes all after a fair fight and the loser gets nothing. Then the issue is never talked about again.
But a more common-sense analysis would understand that there are many ways to leave the EU – and it would make sense to do so cautiously and with respect for the minority – not crudely and brazenly.
It would be very sensible (and British) to see democracy as a mechanism by which action is taken in proportion to the democratic split. It would have saved a lot of grief had Leave offered some concessions to the losing side (nearly half the country).
Democracy is continual and discussions never end. It could even be said that there was more to talk about and decide about after the referendum than before.
There is no such thing as “the will” of the people, only the wills. It suits the purposes of some to divide Britain into two tribes ranged against each other; to run divisions through workplaces and families. All that is artificial; it denies the truth which is variegated.
The reality is that there were and probably still are 17.4 million variants of Leave along a continuum, from “leave tentatively” to ”leave in high dudgeon”; and 16.1 variants of Remain. The two “sides” are really coalitions that may pretend to be united but which are still and will always be locked in internal debate. Maturity is all about accepting that reality.
5. “This is all about regaining our sovereignty”
This word sovereignty has been used endlessly but you rarely hear discussion of what it means. It is often expressed as “we” will take back control of our own affairs but without saying exactly who “we” are. The people of Britain? They are certainly not the ones calling the shots now. Some political analysts have started using the term “popular sovereignty” as the antithesis of “undemocratic Brussels” – but that raises the question of how sovereign are the subjects of Britain. Sovereignty in the UK is inscrutable and debatable. This is not a word to be thrown about carelessly.
Paradoxically, only a sovereign nation can hold a referendum on its future – indicating that the presence or absence of sovereignty is somewhat more complicated than is usually made out.
6. “The UK will benefit from Brexit”
We all hope so, Remainers and Leavers alike. But there are few situations in which everyone wins equally. Either way – stay or go – there will be losers. This must be admitted and yet dealt with and yet it is Brexit taboo to admit that not everything will be rosy. Those who voice concerns are described as ‘inappropriate’ or even unpatriotic. Both Leave and Remain campaigns were built from the start on denial: that there was anything wrong with the EU vs denial that there will be individuals who suffer in the upheavals of the withdrawal process. Should we not pose the utilitarian question about each course of action we are proposing to take, for each variant of Brexit open to us: which will lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people?
Crisis and opportunity
If we can only discuss all the above we could transform a toxic crisis into an opportunity. We are about to go it alone making this a very good moment to ask whether our system of government works effectively as it could. It may be a good time to get things clear; to dispense with traditions that no longer serve us; and make sure that every subject-citizen enjoys full political rights and is able to participate in the system. What choice have we? By holding a referendum and exposing the political system to the biggest challenge for several generations we have opened the curtains and let the sunlight in. If we don’t like what we see; if after two turbulent years we have more conflict than consensus, then it may be time to make the changes that we need to make.