The democratic crisis has hurtled us towards a no-deal Brexit. But we still won’t be sovereign in our own political system.

Our Prime Minister is using the vagueness of the political system to force through his agenda without a clear democratic mandate. But this is just one way that our archaic political system isn’t built to handle the challenges we face.

Brexit, the all-encompassing, community-dividing, career-wrecking issue that has held the nation’s attention as hostage looks as if it might finally be drawing to a conclusion. Since the referendum in 2016, ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’ have engaged in a prolonged cultural trench warfare that has seen the proliferation of radically different visions for the future of our country. Yet, even though this has been the number one issue concerning just about everyone the last few years, it seems necessary to ask, does anyone truly know what’s going on? 

The vote to Leave was bolstered, at least in part, by a moral-panic around a perceived crisis of sovereignty in the UK’s political system. A slim majority of the electorate was galvanised by a desire to ‘reclaim’ decision making from Brussels and ‘restore’ powers to the British people via their elected representatives in Westminster. Following a successful referendum campaign and the subsequent triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) beginning the process of withdrawal, the UK is now scheduled to leave the EU on 31st October. 

Despite this supposed victory for British sovereignty, the events of the last few weeks, let alone the last few years, have revealed a deep underlying irony in our political system. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is committed to ensuring that we exit the EU on 31st October, even if this means a no-deal scenario. This is a situation that could affect everything from the food available in supermarkets to the availability of crucial medical supplies.[1] 

Regardless of whether you voted leave or remain, this cannot truly be said to be the preferred outcome of any clear majority of the British public. Leaving aside for a second the fact that the Leave campaign did not go into the referendum pushing for a no-deal Brexit, polling shows that the public is very much still divided on Brexit and its outcomes.[2] Even if we are reclaiming sovereignty from Brussels, it is clear that we, the people, are not sovereign in our own political system if a Prime Minister with a mandate given to him by just 0.2% of the electorate is able to force through such drastic measures. 

Concerned with the fall-out of a no-deal Brexit, Some MPs have floated the idea of calling for a vote of no-confidence in the PM. Yet, under the woefully inadequate provisions of the UK’s unwritten constitution, even this is not guaranteed to protect us from a no-deal. Its highly possible, Boris Johnson will be able to rely on convention and the vague provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011) to hang on at least until a no-deal Brexit has been forced through. 

This is the United Kingdom in the 21st century. A democracy in which a prime minister, brought to power by a tiny minority of the population, has been able to use the political system to push through an extreme interpretation of a mandate voted for by a slim majority of voters in a referendum. One in which spending rules were broken and the public trust was betrayed with misleading promises. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

While some of the highest rates of inequality in Europe contribute to spiralling child-poverty, fuel-poverty among the elderly and a growing gap in life expectancy, our public services are buckling under the weight of austerity. On top of this, though the UN and others warn that we could have as little as just over a decade to prevent runaway climate change, we have barely begun to make a dent in the large scale transition needed toward a zero-carbon economy. These problems feed into a growing crisis of democracy. 

Our Prime Minister being able to use the vagueness of our political system to force through his agenda without a clear democratic mandate is but one example of how our archaic political system is simply not built to handle the challenges we face. Though some 71% of Britons surveyed stated that they believe that climate change should be made a priority issue, it is currently hard to imagine the policies we so desperately need to keep global temperature rises within a safer limit implemented. Our political system struggles to reflect the values that the people of this country hold when fossil fuel companies stuff the pockets of the governing party[3], and splurge on lobbying.[4]

Public opinion shows that it is possible to fight back and win on things such as austerity and the climate.[5] [6] It is possible to win elections and change policy, but this alone is not enough. Through a new democratic settlement based on constitutional reform, we can begin to build a political system in which the values and rights of the people are enshrined. This way, we can end the crisis of democracy before its effects grow deeper. 


Rob Abrams is Unlock Democracy’s Activism & Outreach Coordinator

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-47470864

[2] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/brexit/2019/07/does-british-public-want-no-deal-brexit

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/conservatives-oil-bosses-party-donations-fossil-fuels-climate-change-ayman-asfari-petrofac-serious-a7751521.html

[4] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/three-ways-fossil-fuel-industry-influences-uk-political-system-and-three-things-y/ 

[5] https://www.ft.com/content/c8d95118-4a42-11e8-8c77-ff51caedcde6 

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/26/climate-more-pressing-than-brexit-say-71-of-britons-poll

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