Brexit, Corbyn, Article 50: in 2017, we need to take back our parliamentary democracy

Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn’s election and Article 50: 2016 saw three profound shocks to the integrity of Britain’s parliamentary system, writes Robert Saunders. Together, they amount to a quiet revolution – potentially the most significant recasting of how Britain is governed since the coming of universal suffrage. Understanding how this has happened, why it matters and what should be done about it is essential, if we are not to sleepwalk into new and potentially more dangerous forms of government in the year ahead.

corbyn commons labour mps

‘Labour MPs now huddle together on the backbenches, powerless behind a leader whose mandate is entirely extra-parliamentary.’ Labour MPs listen to Jeremy Corbyn respond to the Budget in March 2016. Photo: UK Parliament via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

The Crisis of Parliaments

The first great shock was Brexit, which struck the parliamentary system like a visit from the Death Star. The referendum lifted the biggest issue in British politics out of the hands of Parliament, then delivered a verdict that comprehensively overrode its judgement. With three-quarters of MPs backing Remain, the vote to leave was a devastating indictment of the judgement of Parliament and of its claim to represent the people. The shockwaves will be felt for decades, as the whole cast of British foreign, economic and trade policy is reset in a manner to which MPs are largely hostile.

If Brexit marked one blow to Parliament, the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn was another. For the first time in British history, the Leader of the Opposition commands no meaningful support within the House of Commons. He was placed in that role against the express opposition of MPs; and when they attempted to remove him, even serious news outlets described it as a “coup”. A vote of no confidence, backed by three quarters of the parliamentary party, was dismissed as of “no constitutional legitimacy“. Corbyn’s re-election confirmed a remarkable constitutional fact: that the power to appoint the Leader of the Opposition no longer resides in Parliament. Labour MPs now huddle together on the backbenches, powerless behind a leader whose mandate is entirely extra-parliamentary.

Only a happy accident prevented an even more serious constitutional anomaly on the Conservative benches. If Andrea Leadsom had not given a foolish interview to the newspapers, bringing a premature end to the Tory leadership race, Britain would now have its first directly elected Prime Minister. The new premier would have been placed in Downing Street, not by Parliament, nor even by the electorate, but by 170,000 entirely anonymous party members. Not since the Great Reform Act have a few hundred thousand people exercised so much unaccountable and undemocratic power.

This was followed by a third key blow: the controversy around Article 50. When the High Court ruled that only Parliament could trigger the withdrawal process, the tabloids responded as if a coup d’etat had taken place. The Daily Mail denounced the judges as “enemies of the people“, who had “declared war on democracy”. The Daily Express dismissed MPs as a “Westminster cabal“, that could not be trusted to carry out the will of the people. Even when MPs voted by a majority of 5-1 (rather larger than the majority in the referendum) that Article 50 should be triggered before April, The Daily Telegraph published the names of the 89 dissidents, accusing them of “contempt for referendum voters“. Minorities must now be silenced, not simply outvoted.

The most striking feature of the Article 50 case is that it is happening at all. The spectacle of MPs waiting patiently, while the courts decide whether to return powers that they are quite capable of demanding for themselves, would have astonished the Victorians. If the court finds for the government, Parliament will become irrelevant to the single biggest question in British politics. If the government loses, it will table an unamendable bill designed to prevent any meaningful parliamentary involvement. Either way, talk of “the sovereignty of Parliament” has become a quaint archaism, like singing “Britannia rules the waves” on the last night of the Proms.

Does it matter?

Does any of this matter? Parliament is a medieval institution in a digital age, and there have always been those who suspect that it exists rather to frustrate the popular will than to enact it. Surveys consistently rank MPs alongside journalists, estate agents and bankers as the professions least trusted by the public, a sentiment deepened by Iraq, Chilcot and the expenses scandal. Why have MPs at all when, as the Daily Express notes, we already have “a government carrying out the will of the people“?

Democracy is a principle, not a form of government. It expresses a conviction that “the demos”, or “the people” should govern, but says nothing about the forms through which this is done. Since only anarchists believe that “the people” can govern themselves without rules or institutions, some mechanism is necessary through which “the will of the people” can be tested and expressed.

That is harder than it sounds. In all but the most primitive societies, “the people” are a chaos of different interests, impulses and identities. Human beings are not, like the Borg, mere extensions of a single, unitary intelligence; they are farmers and factory workers; old and young; rich and poor. They are shopkeepers, manual labourers and company directors. They vote for different parties, follow different religions and cleave to different values. Democracy is a process, not a body of opinion, which seeks to arbitrate between the glorious cacophony of voices within a free society.

It is this that underpins a parliamentary system. The word “Parliament” comes from the French word “to speak”. It is a place where the different classes and interests that make up a nation come together to parley. MPs talk, debate and bargain; they make compromises, in order to build coalitions of support. Where agreement cannot be reached, the majority must decide; but even majorities are alignments of conflicting ideas and intentions, pulling in different directions even as they coalesce around a temporary position. That’s why there are 329 MPs on the government benches, rather than one MP wielding 329 votes.

In a parliamentary system, dissidents are outvoted, but not silenced. They can test and challenge the majority, asking difficult questions and trying to peel off support. Opposition is not just expected; it is institutionalised. A shadow administration exists throughout the duration of the parliament, led by “the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The archaic title captures something important: that opposition is itself a patriotic duty.

‘The true meaning of democracy’

The vision of democracy currently taking root is very different. For the tabloids, in particular, “the will of the people” is clear and unambiguous. Those who oppose it are guilty of treason against democracy. “Time to silence Brexit whingers“, proclaims the Daily Express. “Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people“, the Daily Mail expostulates. For a columnist in the Express, no punishment could be too severe for critics of Brexit:

Here’s what I would do with them: clap them in the Tower of London … we should give them 28 days against their will to reflect on the true meaning of democracy. We’re in the midst of an exhilarating people’s revolution and those who stand in the way of the popular will must take what’s coming to them.

The Telegraph was only slightly more measured: “all parliamentarians”, it decreed, must “get behind Mrs May and her ministers”. After all, “why would ministers be seeking anything other than the best possible outcome for the country?”

This vision of “the people” as a single intelligence, issuing instructions to politicians, is a dangerous fantasy, made possible only by the vigorous suppression of dissenting voices. The 16 million voters who backed Remain are summarily expelled from the people; they are no longer “people” at all. When Nigel Farage proclaimed, on the morning of 24 June, that Brexit was a victory for “real people“, he meant precisely that. To the populist, minorities are not “real people”; they are traitors and quislings, “metropolitan elites” whose “snake-like treachery cannot go unpunished“. Their views are of no consequence, except as a source of unpatriotic resistance.

In truth, the voice of the people is like the announcements on the London Underground: loud but often difficult to understand, because so many people are talking at once. In populist visions of democracy, only the voice that shouts loudest deserves a hearing. Whether that means the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press or the Momentum faction in the Labour party, that is a grim prospect for our democratic future.

What’s next?

Over the next two years, the country will confront a series of momentous policy questions, none of which was on the ballot paper in June. What trade relationship do we want with the EU, and what price are we willing to pay? How do we rewrite our laws, after 40 years of integration? What do we want to keep, and what must we replace? Our fractured politics has never been more in need of a place where competing ideas and interests can gather to argue, to educate and to inform. What we have instead is a prime minister channelling the malevolent spirits of the tabloid press, wielding prerogative powers and “Henry VIII clauses“, while dissent is shouted down as an offence against the people.

If we want to turn this around, we’ll have to fight for it. That means demanding the right of Parliament, not just to “have a say” on Brexit, or to vote on some meaningless one-line bill expressly designed to shut down discussion, but to take the lead in determining Britain’s new direction. It means not being cowed by the thugs in the tabloid press, whose language increasingly resembles that of the Blackshirts they so admired in the 1930s. It means not putting up with the delusion that Jeremy Corbyn, one of the least popular leaders in British electoral history, has an unparalleled “democratic mandate”, which demands the obeisance of MPs elected by 9 million Labour voters. But it also means admitting where Parliament has been complicit in its own decline.

MPs must take much of the blame for their shrunken status. Parliament was badly damaged by the Iraq vote, when too few MPs were willing to resist the pressure of government and the tabloid press. The expenses scandal did colossal damage, as did the parachuting of party apparatchiks into safe seats with which they had little connection. Above all, an indefensible electoral system has shut out from Parliament significant bodies of opinion that deserved a hearing. When 4.5 million people vote UKIP at a general election, and are rewarded with a solitary MP, we should not be surprised if they conclude that Parliament is something done to them by an external elite.

If Parliament is to revive, we must do more than simply forget that 2016 ever happened. The culture, behaviour and institutions of Parliament all need to change – a subject to which I will return. But it is a fight worth having, if we are to retain a democracy that is pluralistic, discursive and respectful of minority opinions. As 2016 limps unlamented from the stage, let us take back our parliamentary democracy.

This post first appeared at The Gladstone Diaries. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.
robert saundersRobert Saunders is Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen Mary, University of London.

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