Brexit: A Crisis of Democracy?

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Figure 1 Picture credit: Reuters, Victoria Jones/Pool.

Six months on and despite Theresa’s May insistence, nobody really knows what Brexit means. Unsurprisingly, as a leaked memo shows, the government doesn’t know what Brexit means. All that we do know is that we are getting it. For most, Brexit has meant confusion. The concept of democracy has been caught up in this confusing mess. When it comes to the British constitution, Brexit has opened can of worms. Mostly remain representatives were voted into parliament during the 2015 General Election. Yet Britain (England and Wales being the only home nations with majorities) voted for Brexit in 2016. Clearly this is something to do with First Past the Post which fails to proportionately represent public opinion and reduces everything to a two horse race. But it’s more than that. The referendum highlighted how differently we’ve come to use the same word, ‘democracy’, to mean lots of different things on this issue.

Close to home, we’ve seen the rise of direct democracy as a result of the referendum. Having won the referendum, Brexiteers are convinced the people have spoken. All we need to do now is get on with it. They support the Theresa May’s attempt to appeal the Supreme Court’s decision, which, if successful, could allow the government to circumvent a parliamentary vote on activating Article 50. After continually emphasising British parliamentary sovereignty through the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, Brexiteers have come full circle. Now Parliament, chock-full of Remoaners as it is, can’t be trusted to carry through the will of the people. For them, a metropolitan liberal elite with their love of parliamentary procedure and independence of the judiciary, are just getting in the way. The Brexit tabloid press, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express have been keen to push this line about a liberal elite as the ‘Enemies of the People’. Nigel Farage has followed suit, his ‘betrayal’ rhetoric comes eerily close to the Nazi’s stab-in-the-back-myth about World War I. Farage is himself an emobodiment of the failure of parliamentary democracy to deal with 21st century politics. He has shown that you can radically alter British politics without even being a Member of Parliament. In short, referenda attempt to represent the people by asking for a simple answer to a complex question.

On the other side, Remainers are keen to emphasise the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. Previously more than willing to delegate power to the undemocratic European Union, paradoxically, many Remainers now find themselves defending parliamentary sovereignty. Liberal Democrats, and various figures within the Labour party, from Owen Smith to David Lammy, have emphasised that the referendum was merely advisory and was not legally binding. Parliamentarians, elected to represent the people, should choose whether to activate Article 50, the assumption being that many would opt against it. Similarly, these Remainers also reserve the right to call a second referendum on Brexit, the idea being that the referendum didn’t reflect the will of the people in the way they wanted, so let’s give it another try. This may appear undemocratic if we follow the logic of direct democracy. Thus, we see that direct democracy and representative democracy are in conflict. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering many ‘Remoaning’ MPs sitting in strong Leave constituencies, Tristram Hunt for example, are flying electoral kamikaze missions. In short, parliament is a machine designed to mediate between the conflicting, contradictory and often contrarian opinions of the general public: a complex (and often unsatisfactory) answer to a complex question.

When the referendum was first announced, many on the continent assumed that Britain would set up local forums to debate Brexit. This deliberative form of democracy stresses the importance of informed debate. The idea being to ensure citizens knew what they were talking about, had heard opposing arguments and were in touch with public opinion generally. The basic point is that democracy is a process. Its vital values, like engagement and participation, have to be cultivatedand nurtured. It’s not just, like football, a results game. As the referendum played out, it became clear how foreign this continental idea is to British political culture, where the arena of debate tends to be limited to parliamentary chambers, television studios and the columns of the national press. Without localised forums and deliberations, it is unsurprising that on a national level, the debate was polarised and involved almost no nuance. In such a climate, democratic politics therefore becomes decided by personalities. These personalities tend to be media constructions: the result of good media management and spin doctors. As a result, the referendum campaign was framed in the media as David vs. Boris, the ultimate final decider of a schoolboy rivalry, as The Guardian’s results and analysis coverage exemplifies.

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Screenshot from The Guardian’s Results Coverage. Available –

We need some clarity about democracy. We need to move beyond the Brexiteer and Remoaner deadlock. We need to resolve the tension between direct and parliamentary democracy. Democracy is about people power. It is an ongoing process that doesn’t end with the result of an election or referendum. When it comes to Brexit, paradoxically, a European approach is in order. Working out what we want from Brexit will involve talking to each other, not just to our representatives in parliament, but on a local level. Yanis Varoufakis and John McDonnell were on the right lines when they toured Britain, setting up public meetings with space for dissent and discussion, arguing the case for a more radical, democratic Europe. Public engagements such as this need to become more commonplace to inform and politicize people. We need to improve the standard of debate, lift it out of the gutter, before we can get on with doing anything.

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Ken Clarke is right, it’s not surprising the public are switched off by elections

As the UK 2015 General Election approaches, we are barraged with a set of candidates who, as always, ‘preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry’, as the late Howard Zinn once commented. The unpopularity of such candidates has been reflected in voter turnouts in Britain, which have been on whole decreasing: less than two thirds of the electorate voted in 2010 yet that was the highest turnout in a general election of the 21st century so far. There is also an undeniable correlation across the country in recent years between low voter turnout and poverty. The party most harmed by this was Labour, Blair’s centrist coup in 1997 and the consequent 13 years of ‘Third Way’ politics caused Labour to lose 5 million working class voters and forced members to leave in droves. In the 2010 Labour received the lowest share of the popular vote since 1918 and Scottish Labour in 2015 has been described as being ‘in meltdown’.

One of the overall reasons for this is because people are totally disillusioned by the political system, elections are fought less and less over issues which matter to people and more and more over the personality of the leader. Even at the heart of the Establishment, we had Ken Clarke, Tory cabinet minister for Thatcher, Major and Cameron commenting in The New Statesman

‘The public debate and the media, which is becoming increasingly celebrity culture, rather hysterical, sensational, and reduces the whole thing to theatre. Everybody’s election campaigns are presidential, everything’s attributed to the party leader. What matters is how the party leader eats a hamburger and all this type of thing. I mean, it does switch the public off.’

Clarke’s analysis seems on point, elections more than ever are based on the style and the personality of the party leader. David Cameron was recently filmed by The Sun, most of the footage concentrated on the Camerons having their breakfast at No.10 while trying their hardest to appear like normal people. Similarly, The Daily Mail interviewed Samantha Cameron for a personal insight into their family life, another clear attempt to humanize and normalise the Camerons. This ‘celebrity culture’ which has pervaded into the election campaigns is a symptom of our broken political system which breeds this ‘theatre’ kind of debate.

Paul Krugman touches on the economic aspect of this ‘theatre’ in his article in the New York Times where he refers to the ‘misleading fixation of budget deficits’, both Labour and the Conservatives have accused one another of making ‘irresponsible’ funding promises. Moreover, over the last five years the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and much of the media have lectured us on the necessities of cuts while borrowing went up and the economy almost slumped into a triple-dip recession.

This is the dominant narrative Krugman was referring to –

“In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.”

Tories to match labour spendingBut this is simply not true. In 2007, George Osbourne said he would match Labour’s spending over the next three years, despite the fact that now he claims Labour overspent. Britain was nowhere near the so-called ‘Greek style-crisis’ and no other economy which borrows in its own currency was liable to such a crisis. Furthermore, the only reason the economy has now tenuously recovered is because Cameron held off reams of planned spending cuts. As Krugman points out-

‘if this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop’.Tories to match labour spending 2

While unemployment is decreasing, the jobs the coalition congratulates itself on creating amount to low-wage, low-skilled jobs and zero hours contracts. The ‘recovery’ narrative ignores the fact the coalition presided over the biggest decrease in average living standards for over 100 years. Meanwhile, the extremely rich, the so-called ‘wealth creators’, have benefited significantly and even received nonsensical tax cuts.

Unsurprisingly, this inequality comes at a price, The Telegraph and The Guardian reported that the life expectancy in Britain’s poorest areas is worse than Rwanda and on par with Botswana. This reality is completely ignored by the established narrative: ‘the recovering is working’, ‘we’re cutting the deficit’. A government could both cut the debt and improve living standards, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Considering the money spent on benefits for people who’re in poverty-paying jobs, surely making employers pay the living wage saves the Exchequer money and stops the public subsidising low-wage labour?

It’s clear this pervasive narrative has also been a distraction from the privatisation of the National Health Service which the coalition have successfully downplayed by referring to it as ‘reform’ or ‘reorganisation’. The Health and Social Care act of 2012 has allowed companies to bid for NHS contracts, the biggest of which in March 2013… was worth up to £780 million’. According to RT News, it ‘will see 11 private firms perform heart and joint surgery, carry out scans and provide diagnostic tests for patients from mobile medical facilities’. Among the companies engaged in bidding for contracts is Lockheed Martin, an arms producer. To add further salt to the wound, this has been carried out while cuts are taking place to public-run facilities. While there has been a lot of rhetoric from Labour on the NHS, the reality is that Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) implemented by New Labour also privatised large chunks of it under the guise of a ‘public-private partnership’. The public, perhaps quite rightly, doesn’t know who to trust. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US provides us with the perfect example of an expensive, inefficient and sub-standard health system run for private profit. In the States, those who can’t afford insurance can only receive treatment if they stay in Accident and Emergency, often for days on end, their family therefore is forced to stay with them to bring them food and care for them. Our politicians continue to push us further in that direction and away from most countries in the developed world.

Despite the important issues at stake, the childish squabbles refuse to cease, so you would be forgiven by me for thinking that it’s all just theatre.