In his latest essay on the desperate state of politics, AC GRAYLING, the country’s leading philosopher, argues it won’t be enough to just halt Brexit. We need to stop Britain being hijacked again
Brexit can be stopped. I think with ever-increasing confidence that it will be, because every week its defeaters are growing in number, insistence and severity. The splits in both major political parties are now fatal. The accumulating allegations of fraud, crime and foreign interference in the referendum are unignorable. The Irish border is an insurmountable problem without at least partial membership of the EU – and partial membership is so obviously a worse deal than full membership that even Nigel Farage says so.
And there is still no deal because the governing party has no deal with itself, let alone anyone else. And that in turn means that there is already no time left to prepare for what is supposed to be the Brexit date of March 2019. Time has already shifted the demographics away from Leave supporters towards Remain. But that scarcely matters, because public opinion is swinging more and more against Brexit anyway.
The only way out of the morass is a People’s Vote, with an option to stay in the EU. This time such a vote has to be organised with intelligence and fairness. The fairness point is crucial. Last time, three important constituencies with a huge stake in the outcome were denied a voice: the young; British expats who have been working and living abroad for 15 years or more; and fellow EU citizens who have made their lives here with us in the UK.
The point about an intelligent constitutional basis for any referendum offers a more difficult challenge. The last referendum was advertised to parliament as advisory and non-binding only, so no account was taken of the probability that political machinations would spin a result either way: as ‘nugatory’ if Leave lost, as ‘mandating’ if Leave won. An astute mind would have said to itself, ‘This concerns a major and highly consequential constitutional change. A crude majority of votes cast cannot decide such a matter. There must be a threshold below which such a change cannot be regarded as legitimate, for only then can the result be regarded as definitive one way or other’.
But no astute mind applied itself to this point. In the forthcoming – for come it must – People’s Vote, should a threshold requirement be included? Good sense says yes; the Brexiters would scream that the dice are being loaded against it – even though by good sense! They would want the dice to be loaded their way instead.
We know that a significant number of those who voted Leave (ie. of that 37% of the exclusive and excluding electorate who voted Leave) in 2016 did so because they are suffering as a result of years of austerity and stagnation in living standards – which, incidentally, has done nothing to solve the economic problems that austerity was intended to solve (and which anyway was entirely a homemade problem: the UK economy suffers while the rest of the EU steams ahead). So when the lunacy of Brexit has been stopped and the dust has settled, there can be no going back to a status quo ante; these problems have to be addressed, and our economy has to be run for all, not for a few – to adapt a phrase.
One of the chief reboots needed by the UK is constitutional and political reform. A sweeping remake in these respects is desirable but, in the short term, impracticable; it is a work that requires serious thought and careful planning. But there are two things that need to be done, indeed must be done, immediately.
One, the most immediately significant in its consequences, is the voting system. If the UK had a system of proportional representation (PR) for elections to the House of Commons as it does for the EU parliament, city mayors, devolved assemblies, and even for election of parliamentary select committee chairmen and deputy speakers – so MPs themselves know how these work! – we would not have the frequently dysfunctional but always profoundly undemocratic phenomenon of governments being formed from parties with a minority of support in the country – which is the norm as a result of first-past-the-post, the worst voting system in the world.
The norm – not invariably, but no doubt often – under PR would be coalition government. A sensible system would avoid the Israeli and Italian situations, where very small parties can determine the overall course of government. But many of the most flourishing and stable countries in the world are governed by coalitions. Brexit would never have happened under PR and coalition government, given that government actions are accountable to the body which in the UK constitution is sovereign, namely parliament – and in such a case, a parliament that equitably reflects the views and wishes of the country overall would not allow a government to push through a disastrous policy against all reasoned objections and resistance.
Today such a policy is being relentlessly pushed by a cabal claiming to carry out ‘the will of the people’ – meaning the expressed wishes of about a quarter of the population, not a few of whom have since changed their minds. This policy, by every measure, every study, every forecast, including the government’s own, will make the UK poorer. If the Leave campaign had said ‘Vote for fewer resources for our national life! Vote for a worse-off Britain! Vote for less money for health and education! Vote for fewer police and less security!’ they would have lost handsomely: but that indeed is exactly what a Leave vote was for, disguised under lies and distortions.
And amazingly, it is what the Brexiters want! – by ‘Brexiters’ meaning those very few and mainly very wealthy people who want the UK to be a low-tax offshore economy free to engage in the barrow-boy financial jiggeries of an unregulated money-laundering unaccountable outlaw island. Because for them the attrition of the economic and social fabric of the UK, and even its demise as a United Kingdown with Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland leaving, will not affect them: if you have private health care, private education, no financial worries, holidays on clean foreign beaches, and houses (and passports) in EU countries, nothing about the state of an offshore UK will worry you one whit.
The toxic environment created by Brexit is astonishing. Pro-Brexit tabloids brand those who exercise their democratic right to oppose what they judge to be seriously harmful to our country as ‘traitors’ and ‘Remoaners’, and their discussions and campaigning as ‘conspiracy’ – an alarming simulacrum of what happens in totalitarian regimes’ treatment of dissidents.
Moreover the BBC, now alas the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation because as a matter of policy it avoids coverage of almost all anti-Brexit endeavour and treats Brexit as if it were a done deal, allows the lies and distortions to be repeated with great frequency on its airwaves without much challenge. Question Time and the Today programme have become respectively unwatchable and unlistenable-to because of this.
Most shameful of all is the racist abuse that many of our fellow citizens have suffered, and the treatment of our fellow EU citizens who live in the UK and who are being treated as mere pawns in a negotiating game. ‘Shameful’ is hardly a strong enough word.
In rebooting our politics, we need to reboot our society too; I have not heard a single member of Theresa May’s government condemn the abuses perpetrated against our fellow residents of the UK, or against the dishonest and poisonous pro-Brexit tabloid press. This fact by itself tells us that the time for renewing our country has come.
To repeat: the way out of the morass is a People’s Vote with an option to Remain. But defeating Brexit is just the next step. The steps afterwards require a reform of our country’s political and constitutional arrangements so that we can never again be hijacked by an injurious and intensely self-interested cabal. A mature, informed and genuinely democratic UK can and should be proof against liars and manipulators: we need to give the phrase ‘the will of the people’ genuine meaning.