There is no better summary of Brexit than William Keegan’s remark that it is like negotiating to leave the Premier League in order to join the third division. This is so completely accurate that it raises yet again the question: why on earth is Brexit happening?
Among the stock answers is that those who voted Leave in 2016 were anti-immigration, and/or angry at being left behind by austerity economics, and/or wishing to fund the NHS properly, and/or wanting ‘sovereignty’ back, and/or wishing to give Cameron, the Tories and the Establishment a kicking. Perhaps some people felt all of these things simultaneously; the likelihood is that most were chiefly motivated by one or a couple of these considerations, making the Leave vote an inchoate coalition of different groups with different aims.
This consideration adds to the familiar facts about Leave – that it was a mere 37% of the deliberately restricted electorate, this number representing about 26% of the population, thus flatly giving the lie to the ‘people have spoken’ mantra – yet further weight to the argument that government and Parliament failed extraordinarily badly in not analysing the result and not deliberating whether to accept the ‘advice’ of the advisory referendum.
The question therefore becomes: why did government and Parliament fail so extraordinarily badly in its duty to act in the best interests of the country and all its citizens? How has a small cabal of hardline Brexiters managed to drag the entire country into this debacle, given the manifest folly of Brexit?
It is not hard to understand the motivations of leading Brexiters themselves, for those motivations are as old and commonplace as can be: namely, the lures of money and ambition. Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson are respective examples.
Mogg dislikes paying taxes on his very considerable wealth, and publicly argues for a bonfire of the laws and regulations that provide for welfare needs, health care and education, and which protect workers’ rights and the environment, because these things cost money and the money comes from taxation.
Johnson represents naked ambition. He wants to be Prime Minister at any cost – literally so: for it includes any cost to the country. Notoriously, he had written two speeches before referendum day, one Remain and one Leave, and chose the one he calculated would bring him most personal benefit.
There are of course a few other politicians who are Brexiters for nostalgic reasons. They learned about the British Empire at school and are still drunk on the tale. Whereas the likes of Mogg and Johnson have perfectly clear ideas about the benefits that Brexit would bring them personally, these individuals – typical Tory backbench bloviators one sees on the television occasionally – exist in a cloud of fantasies and denials.
And then there are a few – even fewer – left-wing Brexiters, a little clot of dreamers on the Labour front bench, whose ideas were formed by Tony Benn and Peter Shore fifty years ago, and who have learned nothing since. Tony Benn’s argument was that the EU (the EEC in his day) was ‘undemocratic’ unlike the UK where ‘the government has to do what we say and if we don’t like what they do we can change them’ (I quote him from an Oxford Union speech he made some years ago). As someone who liked and admired Tony Benn for other reasons, I always found it hard to understand how he could make such a bad misjudgement. The EU institutions are considerably more democratic than the UK’s institutions. Compare the First Past the Post voting system that perpetually delivers minority government in the UK, and the manifest fact that a government can lose an election (think 2017) and remain in power by buying votes from a minority party with tax-payers’ money (the DUP bribe happening right now), whereas the EU’s Council of Ministers consists of elected heads of EU states, the EU Commission is a civil service like our own (but far smaller; for the entire EU the Commission is smaller than a single British civil service department). In contrast, everything proposed by the Council of Ministers has to achieve a majority in the EU Parliament which is elected on a proportional voting system.
Peter Shore argued that the UK would be worse off in the EEC because it would pay a membership fee. Were he alive today he would be able to see how wrong he was: how the UK flourished economically as a result of its membership – from the 1970s’ three-day week, piles of uncollected rubbish in the streets and unburied dead in the morgues, the cap-in-hand begging at the IMF because the economy was tanking, it became the fifth richest economy in the world on the eve of the referendum: how we have slipped back already and Brexit has not yet happened!
Of course, the Labour dissidents on the EU – Corbyn and his coterie are in a tiny minority in the Labour Party and movement, but they control the bank accounts, the email lists, the party organisation – have a deeper reason, as did Tony Benn and Peter Shore themselves though they were careful not to voice it in most forums. They see the EU, as Benn and Shore saw the EEC, as a capitalist conspiracy. Benn and Shore were not interested in the EEC’s ambition of peace across all Europe, shared values on civil liberties and human rights, progressive social policies, and a form of market economy vastly more thoughtful (with its workers’ rights and protections such as those on employment conditions and maternity leave) than the raw capitalism of the US or the equally raw state capitalism of China. They were interested in centralised economics and state ownership of the means of production. Benn argued for powerful protectionist policies, high tariff walls to keep out imports so that the domestic economy would have to provide for itself under the direction of government. Perhaps the dire lessons of that ambition had not yet been fully learned enough in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the world recovered from war and Europe began its great project of building a peaceful and progressive comity of nations.
But we have still not identified the central reason why the 2016 referendum, both constitutionally and rationally a wholly insufficient ground for Brexit, has resulted in the chaotic and damaging Brexit process we are currently mired in. How have we got to November 2018 with the process still continuing, lurching from absurdity to absurdity as the facts of its folly mount higher every day? The answer lies in the dire inadequacy of our constitution and, connectedly, our politicians themselves. We have a governmental and political order in the UK which is unfit for purpose, as everything that led to and has followed form the 2016 referendum shows.
The first problem is the UK’s ‘unwritten’ – more accurately, uncodified – constitution. An uncodified constitution is said to have the virtue of flexibility; in contrast the US constitution is as fossilised as Holy Writ, a fact demonstrated by the Second Amendment ‘right to bear arms’ adopted in 1791, when ‘arms’ were muzzle-loading muskets not high-powered automatic assault weapons. History and technology have outstripped the Second Amendment and as a result thirty people die in murders by gunfire each and every day in the US – more than one an hour. Add gun suicide and this number doubles: a death-causing bullet is fired every twenty-five minutes. But defending the ‘flexibility’ of the UK constitution by appealing to the inflexibility of the US constitution is a fallacy familiar to logicians. It is not beyond the wit of human beings to devise constitutions capable of responding sensibly to time and change. UK politicians, abetted by traditionalist constitutional lawyers and theoreticians, have hidden behind the flexibility argument to preserve the sheer convenience of being able to do what they like constitutionally, as the lack of clarity and consistency in UK referendums shows.
The UK is described as having ‘representative democracy,’ though it is not a true democracy at all given the unrepresentative nature of the voting system and the deliberate fogginess of the constitutional order. Referendums have no place in a representative democracy, and act as devices of convenience merely, especially if there is neither clarity nor consistency in their use. Each referendum held in the UK since 1975 has operated on a different basis, some having threshold requirements and others not, with differing franchises, some including voters who are excluded from other referendums; and each has been advisory only because – technically – the sovereignty of Parliament means that nothing can override the decisions of a Parliament other than a decision of a later Parliament. The 2016 referendum was of a piece with this make-it-up-as-you-go-along fudge; technically advisory, politically convenient for whichever side of the argument is able to capture its outcome, non-binding unless politically useful to treat it so. And the Brexiter cabal found it very convenient to run with the simplistic response of the media in the early hours of the morning of 24 June 2016, gazumping Parliament’s right and responsibility to examine the outcome rationally.
One could cite many more examples of the useful plasticity of the constitution. It is a matter of statute that if a government loses a No Confidence motion in the House of Commons, that vote has to be repeated two weeks later, to check whether people are still of the same mind. This is a protection for the government and the majority party, who would otherwise have to submit to re-election. So by law the government has a protection against a vote that goes against it, by having a second bite of the cherry: but the people? Can they have a second referendum to check whether people are still of the same mind in a matter of huge historical importance to the country?
The political expediency to the Brexiters of the referendum’s constitutional slipperiness was, however, wonderfully abetted by the sheer ineptitude, if not downright stupidity, of the government that emerged from David Cameron’s resignation. The Leave campaign had offered only vague slogans and false promises but no plan, no roadmap, no careful costings and evaluations of the impact on the economy, no exploration of possibilities regarding trade and alliances, no studied programme of policies: and yet the government of Theresa May, having accepted the vote of 37% of the electorate as a 100% mandate without any further discussion, proceeded to trigger Article 50 (2) of the Lisbon Treaty (having ignored the requirement of Article 50 (1)) still without a plan, assessments or a programme. This is culpable negligence. The absence of a plan was a product of the fact that the Conservative Party did not even agree with itself about what such a plan should be – and at this time of writing it still does not agree with itself about that. In a rational dispensation, this fact would be reason enough to delay matters in order to reconsider or to work out some manageable way forward: but May’s government continues to ‘negotiate’ without having an agreed plan on which to negotiate.
And what of the vast bulk of MPs who are supposed to be acting in the interests of their country and their constituents? Why did they not stand up and say, We need to talk about this sensibly? There are some admirable MPs, men and women of principle and intelligence; but events are revealing how few they are in number. What we see instead is the toxic result of politics being treated as a career, not as a service. Because it is a career, and MPs fear losing their seats (their jobs, their incomes) in an election, the system of Party discipline and the Whips forces them to represent the interests of their Party rather than the interests of their country.
How do we let careerists and lobby-fodder types get into Parliament? Because the disengagement of citizens from politics, their scepticism about the value of a vote, the sense that an individual has no influence on what emanates from the Westminster bubble, has been firmly entrenched by the First Past the Post system of voting that disenfranchises the majority of voters at every election, and makes them careless about whom they select as their representatives. They leave matters to the activists, the tiny number of people who join political parties and populate constituency meetings and selection processes. Many gifted individuals would rather go into business, education or the non-profit sector than submit themselves to the process of appeasing activists, followed by compromising every principle they ever had to stay on the greasy pole of Party politics, in an uncertain career in which hanging on to that pole is treated as the most important of all tasks – whatever the cost to the country.
There is much more to be said on every one of these matters, but the foregoing should be enough tell us one thing with stark clarity: that once the debacle of Brexit has been sorted out, our constitutional and political arrangements need reform as a matter of urgency. It is because they are unfit for purpose that the country has imploded. The ramshackle nature of both constitution and politics has enabled a small group of hardline Brexiters to effect nothing less than a coup in their own sectional interests: to put in motion a process to take us out of the Premier League into the Third Division, nullifying our rights as EU citizens and stealing away a mass of opportunities for our young people. That fact by itself shows that the structures of what produces government in the UK are rotten to the core. We can no longer remain indifferent to this emergency: it threatens our ruin.