There is an unwritten rule for this blog which was, within reason, to stick to evergreen topics as much as possible to keep articles from becoming dated. Relevant to the topic I’m about to write about however is a conflicting rule: I want to write about things that I am passionate about. This essay has been burning in my belly for some time now, but current events have brought it up to the figurative boil.
For historical context, I write on the 1st of September 2019. The current UK government has declared that Parliament shall be prorogued from the 9th of September 2019 to the 14th of October to, in their words, deliver a Queen’s Speech laying out their future business. In reality, the biggest impact of this prorogation (the longest in decades) will be to limit the available time for Parliament to legislate against the Government’s current policy of trying to ‘run down the clock’ and allow the UK to leave the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement. This weekend has seen mass protests across the UK with citizens in outrage of the proposed prorogation, viewing it as an affront to our democracy. Just this morning Minister without Portfolio, Michael Gove has publicly admitted that should the UK Parliament manage to pass legislation to prevent the UK leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement, the Government may choose to simply ignore it.
In simpler words, the Government might choose to ignore UK law if it serves its interests. This is a Very Bad Thing.
For many reasons it is very difficult to express a balanced view of the current state of UK politics, and how it is viewed by the wider public. For instance:
1. The animosity between either side of the Brexit debate is fierce. To express an opinion counter to the extremes of either group is to brand yourself a ‘traitor’. The language being used to describe people across the political spectrum is venomous, dehumanising, and massively unhelpful.
2. Because of this resentful divide, it becomes difficult for people to decouple actions or words that benefit their partisan aims from actions that are shortsighted, divisive, or unlawful.
3. As a result of this difficulty, there is a wide and particularly problematic misunderstanding of the already vague word ‘democracy’.
So before we talk about why the current UK Government is doing demonstrably terrible things with obvious and avoidable negative consequences for the UK as a whole, we need to talk about The D Word.
What even is democracy?
Depends who you ask doesn’t it? In the UK we operate a Parliamentary Democracy. Under this system, to massively oversimplify, our country is divided into small areas called constituencies, and each constituency elects a representative (Member of Parliament, or MP for short) who then divides their time between their local area, and time in London at the UK Parliament.
First point of confusion. Many people disagree about whether or not their MP is simply meant to ‘tell Parliament what the majority of people in the constituency think’ or whether they are meant to act in the best interests of the constituents even if their best interests run counter to locally held opinions on the matter.
In my opinion, this should not be up for debate. The reason we elect representatives, is because we can task them with taking the time to understand and therefore vote in good conscience on issues we neither have the time nor the capacity (on average) to do so. I like to think myself a relatively intelligent person, but do I want to spend dozens of hours poring over fishing policies, proposals on changes to inheritance laws, or defence budgets? No, frankly I don’t. I have taken the time to vote for a representative who will do so on my behalf. Neither do MPs operate in a vacuum: when I have opinions on upcoming policy I can make an appointment to visit my MP to inform them, or write a letter, or send an email.
But the fact remains, that a significant portion of the public are of the belief that their MP should just ‘do as they’re told’ (aside: do you think people who hold that opinion would want to be an MP?). So even before we move onto ad-hoc referenda which are in conflict with our already ‘established’ version of democracy, we already have a difference of opinion over what our country’s version of it is.
Our next flavour of democracy is the Referendum. I am sure all readers are aware we had one of those not so long ago, and ever since then its effects are inescapable. Let’s face it, as you read this very text you are metaphorically entwined in its betentacled clutches.
In the UK, a referendum is a nationwide vote on a particular issue which is meant to be binding on the government of the day. It is very understandable version of democracy, a question is asked or a policy is put forward to be either rejected or accepted, and winner takes all.
This simplicity, I would argue, is part of what makes some of the current language, propaganda, and slogans being used so attractive to people, in particular those who voted to Leave the EU. A very simple argument to form is “we won the referendum, do as your told and leave the EU”. It will be relevant to note that the referendum chose by a narrow, and now famous margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. It was not a resounding victory by any means.
There are fundamental questions to be asked regarding the way the 2016 EU referendum was crafted, because with a little more care and forethought, the very real economic, and now Constitutional uncertainty caused by it could have been avoided. The open-ended question of *exactly how* the UK was to leave the EU, should the populace choose to do, so is the very reason there is now such confusion about democracy.
Democracy vs. Democracy
I am emphatically not a lawyer, so I am utterly unqualified to debate the merits of which of these two forms of democracy should trump the other, but it is obvious for all to see that there is an ongoing conflict between two competing democracies, and for the purposes of this essay, and being able to correctly judge the UK Government’s recent actions, that there is an unresolved conflict is all that matters.
It is easy to find comments on websites, placards at rallies, and quotes on vox pops on the news saying that to protest against the prorogation of Parliament is “anti-democratic”, because it subverts the “will of the people”. This is plainly only part of the story, because as we know there are two democracies in play. One of the democracies chose the direction of travel - that is the Referendum chose to leave - and the other democracy, our Parliamentary democracy, has been left to figure out exactly how it is should be done. Both are legitimate, and neither can or should be ignored.
The most obvious way to get around this fundamental impasse would be some sort of compromise: the UK would leave the EU in a way which the 48% of the public who wished to remain can be in some way placated. Unfortunately for fans of practical solutions that might just about please everyone a little bit, three successive UK Governments have by negligence and choice made compromise essentially impossible.
The slow death of compromise
The Cameron government devised the 2016 referendum badly, and then failed in the campaign to call out lies by the Leave campaign in at attempt to avoid damaging inter-party public arguments. This allowed the Vote Leave campaign in particular the latitude to frame the arguments in the most base and false ways, and marked the start of a ratcheting of rhetoric across the whole of the debate. Compromise was already under threat from the uncontrolled lies spread by Leave UK and the combative and negative tone they set.
The May government was the first to actively choose to throw compromise in the figurative bin. After an initial period marked by silence and evasion, May decided to trigger a snap election, actively seeking a mandate to enact her Brexit strategy. The election resulted in May losing her majority, with a return to a hung Parliament. The country effectively said, “we don’t particularly want what you’re offering, and we feel much the same about the opposition”. At this point, May ought to have recognised the country’s need for compromise, but instead veered maniacally into a brick wall as she began to behave as if she’d won a thumping majority. The UK was to leave on what was, in terms of all referendum campaigning and political speculation since 2016, the very hardest of Brexits. The ratchet moved another tooth on its travel.
Now we arrive at the Johnson government, and in the space of a few short weeks we’ve moved from May’s policy of Very Hard Brexit, to Johnson’s policy of seeking to leave without a Withdrawal Agreement at all. It is important to note that under the May government, MPs from all parties voted for and passed legislation demonstrating a firm rejection of taking this action, deeming it economic suicide. A similar group of MPs are planning to do so again.
So, compromise is dead, and Winner-takes-all politics becoming the new norm under PM Johnson, probably due in part to the success of President Trump. Political norms can no longer be taken for granted, as a politician operating with wrecking tactics simply ask themselves “what are the costs of breaking these rules?”.
Bollocks to the rules
Prime Minister Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings has been held in contempt of Parliament, yet is now one of the most powerful people in Whitehall. What tangible, life-affecting cost has been borne of his being held in contempt? None. He probably has an official letter telling him as such, which he has either framed, or shredded.
Johnson and his team under Dominic Cummings will be looking at every gentleman’s convention that can be waived, every prerogative power that can be abused, and now any laws which can be simply ignored and asking themselves: “what can be gained by doing this, and what will it cost us?”. As with Cummings’ contempt, many of the costs will be “none at all” and many will be “none in the short term”.
Because this returns us to our first question: what is democracy? We might not be able to get anywhere near a consensus on what democracy is, but we can agree what it is not.
It is not sending the voting body away for 5 weeks because they might force you to do something you don’t want to.
It is not ignoring laws which do not suit you.
It is not (as is currently reported as a possibility) sacking and deselecting any MPs which vote against the government.
(Note: this is one of the reasons I want to get this out now, before it’s outdated. By tomorrow lunchtime there might be a bloody general election on the cards and all this becomes somewhat redundant)
All these moves have a cost, and that cost is the erosion of our Parliamentary Democracy. Whichever way you voted in the referendum, allowing a government to act in this way allows all future governments to do the same, and any one of those next times they will probably do something you disagree with.
And yet you may cry: doesn’t allowing MPs to block No Deal defy the other democracy; the referendum result? Well no, it doesn’t at all. All the referendum result does is declare that we should leave, not how. The method of leaving has been left to the Parliamentary democracy, and Parliament must be allowed to operate.
Anything less is not democracy.