Has British Representative Democracy Ran its’ Course?
(Written week beginning Monday 18th)
In an unprecedented era of parliamentary deadlock, turmoil and incompetence, has the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on EU membership irreversibly exposed the faults in this country’s system of parliamentary democracy?
The 2016 EU referendum will go down in history as the spark landing on the tinderbox of one of the most turbulent periods of peacetime politics in modern British history. The vote represented a significant injection of direct democracy into our system of representative democracy. Events on the streets, in the media, at dinner tables and in the Palace of Westminster have proved that these denominations of democracy are not compatible. Some MPs, with their own political stances and opinions, do not match the views of the majority of their constituents and this has worsened an already notable rift between the public and their public servants.
This broad church of opinions on the Brexit process held by MPs has meant that there is no majority in the House of Commons in regard to how the country should proceed. This ranges from the hardest of Brexiteers in the ERG, headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, to those advocating a so called People’s Vote like the now ex-Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry and the current Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas. Moreover, the deal pulled together by Theresa May is deemed diabolical by both Remainers and Brexiteers. All of these factors have resulted in parliamentary deadlock and a full blown constitutional crisis. Normal procedure and precedent has been thrown out of the window on multiple occasions and, as a the 29th March deadline looms, the country is now dangerously close to driving off of a cliff in the form of a No Deal.
As a result of differing opinions and the government’s unwillingness to compromise impossible red lines, there has been embarrassingly slow progress with negotiations with the EU. This has resulted in the occasional leadership challenge accompanied by votes of no confidence. Theresa May suffered the biggest margin of defeat in British history when her deal was presented to the House on 15th January, and similar episodes of resistance from MPs have meant that constituents are currently feeling frustrated; completely alienated from MPs. This is especially the case if you happen to be a leaver and your Remainer MP is pushing for a so called People’s Vote even though you voted to leave.
These disagreements have been made so plainly visceral by the fact that the question put to the people on the 23rd June 2016 was so polarising and subjective. Two opposite options. In or out? Both sides of the referendum campaign, therefore, drew upon broader arguments as to why the electorate should vote their way. The vote became about more than a political organisation on the continent. It became about the essence of the British state, and what one envisioned their country to be. The consideration of undermining factors such as austerity, immigration and poverty meant that, in many cases, a leave vote was a vote against the establishment which had burdened one with these issues. Sections of British society, particularly the former industrial heartlands of the North and the Midlands, viewed themselves as ignored and left behind for too long. This is political disassociation on a simply humongous scale.
Due to the magnitude of this decision, both sides believe that the other are damaging the country they love, and contempt held for one another can be extremely potent. This has contributed towards a period of hostility in politics rarely seen in recent times, as the country is split in two; enduring a consequential ideological civil-war.
In the midst of this seemingly unending chaos, the Labour Party – due to Corbyn and McDonnell – has leaped to the left, and the Conservatives – thanks to the influence of hard Brexiteers – have experienced a shift to the right. This has resulted in the alienation of centrists in both parties, and rumours of a new centrist party have been running rife. This saga began on Monday as seven Labour MPs resigned from the party on Monday and the long threatened Labour ‘split’ finally occurred. In fact, it looks more like a small splinter as those jumping ship consists of such a small percentage of the PLP.
Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger; who has suffered from particularly abhorrent anti-Semitic bullying, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker and Ann Coffey have all become dissatisfied with their leader. His contentious defence policies, an ambiguous handling of Brexit and incompetence in regard to the festering rise of anti-Semitism amongst the party’s membership has resulted in criticism from the media, the public and the party’s MPs. They believe that British politics is broken, and the old style modus operandi of tribal politics needs to be ‘dumped’; replaced with something new and different. Although this movements did not get off to the best start – on the afternoon of launch day, Angela Smith apologised for appearing to state that “It’s not about being black or a funny tinge” during a discussion about race on Monday’s edition of Politics Live – the addition of Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen on Wednesday could supply these eleven newly independent MPs with crucial momentum. This movement could yet be incredibly significant.
This brave move by, in some cases, life-long Labour and Tory party members is a result of the quagmire which this country now finds itself in. The most likely outcome remains that Theresa May will somehow force a form of her deal through the commons and the country will reluctantly swallow the pill of a soft Brexit; leaving the country with worse economic prospects and standing in the world. However, one cannot predict things any longer, and in today’s volatile political environment most outcomes can occur. Those advocating a People’s Vote will march again through London on the 23rd March in an attempt to reinvigorate the movement’s popularity, and preparations for a No Deal are still being made as it remains extremely probable.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been reduced to comic relief for the continent and the United States. Yes, even a country being ran by a chauvinistic Cheese Puff is taking the micky. Matt Damon sported a rather large forehead when portraying David Cameron on SNL, as he mocked Theresa May – portrayed by Kate McKinnon – and her handling of the Brexit negotiations. The Heute Show, a satirical fixture of German television, has also taken the liberty. Brexit makes regular appearances as the host obtains regular laughs from the audience by explaining the idiocy and hubris of Britain’s current administration. In addition, the Speaker of the HoC, John Bercow, has gained warranted internet fame around the world due to his characteristically unwavering and entertaining handling of proceedings, as well as his rather adventurous tie selection.
Republicans preach the benefits of their more transparent and fluid procedure, and it could well breath a breath of fresh air onto a sometimes old fashioned, confusing and inefficient system. Be that as it may, they should be wary, due to recent events across the pond, as to what our country would look like with an all-powerful President – potentially any British citizen – rather than a sovereign and PM. God knows what would happen to our country if this position was filled by someone of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – A.K.A Tommy Robinson – or Nigel Farage’s political persuasion. But, one could overlook the election of Trump, the recent US government shutdown, and the rise of the far right if the current period of parliamentary instability ensues for an inexcusable amount of time. A British presidency undoubtably has the potential to be dangerous.
Proportional representation may alleviate some of the problems around a true representation of the country’s diversity in regard to political opinion. It will also be incredibly interesting to see what follows the immediate grief after the Queen’s death, whenever that may be. The country will probably evaluate how they feel about the validity of the monarchy and the role of their new king. His coronation is already rumoured to be on a smaller scale to his mother’s, although this may change as the government may seek to reassure the world that a post-Brexit Britain will be fine and dandy. Who knows what the loss of such an imperative, stabilising and popular figurehead as Queen Elizabeth II will mean for the Commonwealth, Britain’s place in the world and the future of how the country governs itself? With Her Majesty gone, the viability of the monarchy in its’ current state may also go. However, Britain may do what they believe is right, and accept their new King, bowing to the historical precedent and tremendous respect which the institution commands.
Any large scale change to the British political system is unlikely to happen, as we are a country incredibly proud of our traditions, relatively ancient constitutional monarchy and representative democracy. Steeped in centuries of fascinating and notable history, it will take a truly mighty force for this system to budge in any capacity. Seven Labour and two backbenchers may not represent this force. Although, it seems as though they are going to be joined by more MPs, including Tories. Political commentators will be on the edges of their seats, as this has the potential to turn into something significant.
What is not in doubt is the fact that leaving the EU has acted as a political hurricane, exposing the cracks and faults of this country’s representative democracy. The referendum should never have been called, and David Cameron should bear the responsibility for triggering a period of national turmoil and possibly permanent trauma.