What the Brexit Shambles Says About the State of British Democracy
In normal times the U.K. parliament’s rejection by 230 votes of the withdrawal agreement negotiated between the government and the European Union – an unprecedented and historic defeat – would have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May. That this did not happen is not just due to the unique and existential nature of Brexit, but also to the travails of U.K. politics since the 2016 referendum, which has revealed a democracy in deep trouble.
Presumably in a state of collective shock after nearly 52 percent of voters in the referendum chose to leave the EU, the parliament approved the government’s decision to start the withdrawal process without a plan for doing so. Leaving aside that the referendum campaign was so poisonous that many refrained from publicly stating their preferences, the vote was conducted with dubious criteria from a democratic point of view – excluding EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, going against the recommendation of the House of Lords to extend the franchise to 16 year-olds (whose future was at stake), and not allowing Britons that had been living abroad for over 15 years to vote.
This was followed by the executive’s complete takeover of the Brexit file and a disempowering of parliament. It started soon after the government’s perilous decision to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets a two-year timeframe to leave the EU unless there is a request by the United Kingdom to prolong or suspend the process. This disempowerment was driven by the government’s ideological and political decision to interpret the referendum vote narrowly as expressing “the will of the British people” to end freedom of movement of EU citizens to the United Kingdom and to end the supremacy of EU law.
The “yes or no” choice on the Brexit ballot said nothing about the type of relationship with the EU that Britons might prefer. The importance of this has since been confirmed by the fact that after the defeat of the withdrawal agreement in parliament more options are now on the table than at any time since the referendum, including U.K. membership of the Customs Union or of the European Economic Area.
Referendums support a majoritarian rather than a more desirable pluralist view of democracy. What is more, in an age of populist democracy a one-time vote for a majority of a 50-percent-plus-one vote risks being – and in this instance was – interpreted as giving carte blanche to a government.
But in the U.K. case, the situation has been even graver. Not only did the 52 percent vote for Brexit in 2016 represent only 37 percent of all citizens, the government’s interpretation of the result was determined by the radical and extreme neoliberal minority wing of a hopelessly divided Conservative Party, one that was also keen to dismantle the state and to free the country from democratic and constitutional constraints.
The whole Brexit debacle saw the capture of democratic institutions by a powerful executive – driven by the desire to save the Conservative Party – that was able to use its power at the expense of parliament and of a population whose views are far more diverse. The conduct of the negotiations with the EU, the lack of transparency and accountability over government assessments about the impact of Brexit, and the absence of cross-party discussions on the future relationship with the EU are testimony to this capture.
The tactic of holding the United Kingdom hostage to binary options – first “the withdrawal agreement or no deal” was used a threat to Remainers, then “the agreement or no Brexit” as a threat to Brexiteers – also reflected the primacy of holding the government and Conservative Party together over the good of the country. Raising the specter of a hard Brexit was also used toward Brussels and European capitals, though with less success.
Paradoxically, however much the government’s defeat on January 15 pushes Britain deeper into crisis, and despite the odd alliance between hard Brexiteers and Remainers that drove that vote, the parliament clawed back a role for itself as an institution of government. In the weeks before the vote creative members’ amendments to prevent a “hard Brexit” and to constrain the government showed that parliament can still curb an executive captured by an ideological minority.
In another democratic development, grassroots movements have mobilized to advocate a second referendum to decide the fate of the country. The movements that sprang up in the wake of the 2016 referendum did not break the grip of the government on how the debate on Brexit was framed until recently. In recent months public opinion has shifted toward remaining in the EU, there has been anecdotal evidence of individuals changing their mind in reaction to the government’s handling of the negotiations, and sectors of society have become more outspoken about their preferences.
Looking ahead, if May sticks to her “red lines” and her ideological interpretation of “the will of the people,” there is very little chance that the EU will be willing to review the terms of the withdrawal agreement. It is unlikely that even a tweaked version would change the balance in parliament. If the government were to lose the confidence of parliament, a new one may seek to negotiate again on a clean slate and pave the way for other options, such as membership to the Customs Union or the European Economic Area.
But even with fresh elections, one thing is clear: Parliament is divided because British society has become bitterly divided over Brexit. The divisions will not be overcome by whatever solution may be identified to cobble together a majority in this or the next parliament.
While referendums are a bad tool of direct democracy, especially on existential such questions of a highly complex nature, it is not be excluded that parliament sees it fit to return to the people. This should not be framed as a “second referendum” but as a civil debate and consultation on the options available, from staying in the EU to other forms of relationship. A period of national and widespread democratic debate and consultation may be necessary to determine whether the United Kingdom leaves, half leaves, or even stays in the EU.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.