Article Published December 4th, 2020
“The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.” (Margaret Atwood)
The deadline for ending the “transitional” arrangements for Britain’s relations with the EU is rapidly approaching, and as some predicted a year or two ago, there is no sign of a meaningful agreement that will provide a stable framework for future relations between the EU and UK.
The depth of disagreement within the country over Brexit, where, according to recent opinion polls the Remain vote is now higher than the Leave vote, has even spread to the Bishops of the Church of England. In September 2020, the College of Bishops for the Anglican church wrote:
“In writing, we affirm our respect for the June 2016 Referendum, and our belief that the result should be honoured.” (Church Times 4/10/20)
This then sparked off a lively debate in the Church of England, including interventions by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who replied in the Church Times, on October 10th 2020, that “to honour or respect the referendum result is not to sign up to Brexit at any cost.” For students of history, this sounds relatively mild stuff, until it is realized that we are talking about an institution buried deep within the British/English establishment. This debate shows that the Church of England, along with much of the rest of British society, remains deeply divided over Brexit. There are no signs of any healing balm being applied by the Leave government to assuage the deep political wounds experienced by Britain.
The implications of this debate go much further and deeper. The Archbishop, using his position in the House of Lords, severely criticized the government for breaking international agreements with respect to Northern Ireland over future border arrangements between the UK, Northern Ireland and the EU. And Archbishop Welby was not alone, as the voting in the House of Lords on the proposed Internal Markets Bill showed. The Bill was soundly defeated in voting by their Lordships. All this passed relatively unnoticed, since owing to our dysfunctional constitution no one much cares about what the House of Lords says. It is however curious to say the least that the “flag” of the Remain voters is not being waved more energetically by any of the major political parties.
All this suggests that although the attention of the pro-Brexit UK press is currently fixed on Covid, one can see how the issues around Brexit simply refuse to go away, and that deep scars within British society persist over the issue. Indeed, it might be argued that it is becoming easier to see how Brexit, the Leave campaign, and the “victory” of Mr Johnson in the November 2019 General Election are all more closely linked that some had thought. Brexit, in other words, is not an isolated incident. Rather, or so it seems to this author, it is part of a process that is undermining much of our modern democracy. And as our political system creaks, so we gaze at the growth of cronyism (recent NHS PPE contracts); efforts to break international treaties (Internal Market Bill) and intimidate the civil service (resignations of several high ranking civil servants); and supporting breaches of the ministerial code regarding bullying (Priti Patel case). The list goes on, and it looks more and more like the emergence of an authoritarian approach, limited, for the time being, by its own incompetence.
The British government has demonstrated strong anti-democratic tendencies since its election in 2019, a year ago. The recent kitchen sink dramas within the Prime Minister’s Office being yet a further example. There is the infamous Dominic Cummings openly breaking the government’s own imposed rules when driving across the country in the middle of the first Covid lockdown. And as if the trip to Barnard Castle in Durham for eye testing purposes was not enough, the PM proceeded to “pardon” him, just as he has done with Ms Patel.
Not that this was sufficient to save the eminence grise’s job. His combination of being rude to everybody, despising MPs, and insisting that he knew best revealed the extent to which the government of the country had been effectively taken over by a revolutionary elite group of leaders and members of the Brexit Leave campaign. As has happened at other times, it rapidly became obvious that the narrow ideological platform espoused by the Leavers was a poor basis on which to run the country, and in particular to deal with the Covid crisis. Here, Britain’s performance has been arguably amongst the worst in the G7 countries.
Lockdowns and ideology
The Leave government has also struggled during the CV19 pandemic to accept that there might be any medical or public health reasons for imposing limits to what they consider to be basic freedoms, such as freedom of movement, freedom to run a business, and freedom to infect as many people as they like. The idea that there might be a “national” interest that does not exclusively represent their views is something Leavers seem to find particular difficulty in accepting.
This attitude is reinforced by the assumption often found among the government’s supporters that there is a dichotomy between the interests of social protection and care and the interests of the economy. In their view the costs of remedial social measures are too high, and outweigh the unspecified benefits of saving lives. During Parliamentary and media debates it is rarely mentioned that the countries with better economic forecasts in 2020 are those which have been most successful in controlling Covid, notably countries such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. Seen in this light, a full economic recovery will only be possible when the several millions of vulnerable and shielded voters feel sufficiently secure to pursue their normal lives, free of the risk of catching Covid.
The putting of the pro-Brexit interest ahead of the national interest can also be seen in an act of unparalleled gerrymandering of the electorate that occurred during the 2016 referendum. One of the crowning insults to democracy exercised by the Leavers was in their successful gerrymandering of the franchise for the 2016 referendum itself. At that time there were 1.3 million UK citizens living in the EU, and nearly 2.4 million EU citizens living in the UK who were disenfranchised from the referendum and subsequent political debates around EU membership. These were people who had bet their lives on the continuing free movement of people under the Treaty of Rome. There is little doubt that had these groups been given the vote in the referendum, we would not now be facing the prospect of any kind of Brexit at all.
Implications for the future of the UK
The continued confusion over the future shape of UK/EU relations, combined with the clearly stated government view that devolution is a “disaster” strongly suggests the Leave ideology is plotting to reclaim much of the powers the devolved administration have, with a view to reinforcing the centralized power of Westminster government.
The deadly progress of Covid has given the devolved administrations the chance to talk with their own electorates, and to explain and justify how their local and “national” Covid containment strategies differ from those applied across the whole of England. One result of this has been that voters in the devolved regions appear to trust their own governments more than they trust the Leave government in Westminster.
Concerns about this, and a rise in opposition to national lockdowns in the Tory party, contributed to a change in policy at Westminster. Since the devolved regions have responsibility for their own health care, Westminster’s role is reduced to setting policy for England only. In this context, Boris Johnson’s government decided, without seeking parliamentary approval, to impose different levels of lock down on different regions within England, rather than adopting a one size fit all approach to all (except for the interlude in November 2020) . This then gave rise to the unseemly spectacle of different English regions bargaining their acquiescence to a local lockdown in return for getting government financial support for their local industries and services.
The government’s blank refusal to listen to the wishes of the devolved regional governments on a range of issues, is contributing to the growth in Scotland of views favouring a second referendum on independence from England, and to rejoin/remain in the EU. Similarly, the Remain majority in Northern Ireland may well now begin to press for a referendum on the vexed border question with the Irish Republic, a step that could lead to the reunification of Ireland. If this continues to sound far-fetched, then we should recall in a little known episode of Star Trek, Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise recounting the date of eventual Irish reunification as having taken place in 2024 – which could yet rate as one of TV’s more remarkable predictions!
The more serious point being that with the ending of the transitional arrangements, and a reversion to WTO trading conditions, we could see the UK splintering into a rump of England and Wales, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland peeling away to determine their own futures without the intervention of Westminster. Is that what David Cameron had in mind when he embarked on such a destructive course back in 2015?
And what about Federalism?
If the scenarios outlined above are to be avoided, perhaps this could be done by strengthening rather than undermining democracy in the UK? It is instructive that among the former, largely white, dominions of the British Empire, none of them adopted an unalloyed Westminster model. In Australia, Canada, South Africa and India, all large geographical areas, various forms of federalism were adopted, with reasonable degrees of success. It became clear that regional interests also needed to be represented and listened to, in a way different from the atrophied role played by the House of Lords.
Similarly, where devolution has led to changes in electoral rules for local parliaments, voter behaviour changed, dramatically, to the cost of incumbent national political parties represented in Westminster. A closer look at the system used for the Holyrood parliamentary elections in Scotland provides with a clear example as to the importance of the choice of electoral systems. The Scottish system is modelled closely on the system used in Germany, where each voter has two votes. One can be given to elect a constituency MP according to first past the post rules. The second vote is given to a political party, rather than an individual, and allows the overall representation to more closely reflect the proportions of actual votes cast. There are 73 constituency-based MSPs and 56 List MSPs, and the system permits a wider degree of political representation than is possible under Westminster’s first past the post rules. This has led to a substantial reduction in the number of both Tory and Labour MSPs in the Scottish Parliament Building at Holyrood, while currently allowing a leading role for the SNP.
The White Cliffs of Dover
As the clock ticks down towards the final denouement on UK EU relations, the myopia of the Leave Government becomes more and more starkly revealed. At the same time the constitutional weaknesses this entire episode has revealed suggest that there is an urgent need for political reform in the UK, irrespective of whether a Brexit agreement is achieved or not. As the UK’s political bus comes nearer and nearer to the white cliff-edges of Dover, let us hope that we will learn how to strengthen and refresh our jaded political system, before it delivers terminal damage to the UK.