Let’s fill the leadership vacuum by putting the public in control
After the historic and humiliating defeat of Theresa May’s withdrawal deal, and as the Article 50 deadline rushes ever closer like a charging bull in full flight, it is hard to know where we go next. Discussions about Brexit have at times amounted to headache-inducing swirls of obsession around the drama in Westminster. All this has served to obscure is the direction of travel - not just immediately, but in the long-term - and what the implications are for the people of the UK.
What may happen next - no deal, a modified deal, a general election, a referendum - is anyone’s guess. But if there’s any hope of healing the divisions cast wide open by Brexit and addressing its root causes, the UK needs to embark on a major project of democratic renewal - one where people of the UK move decisively from the passenger seat into the driving seat.
A wake-up call unheeded
Brexit should have been a wake-up call to the political class in Westminster. It should have been a moment not just to reflect on our relationship with the EU but also to look at the state of the nation. Yes, people feel disempowered by a distant and opaque Brussels. But they also feel alienated by a remote and inaccessible Westminster.
The last two years could have been seized as an opportunity for a bold and ambitious project of democratic renewal. One that: explored why the UK was so divided in the referendum and looked at how to bring the country together; asked the people what they want from the future; examined the broken relationship between citizen and state, where the former feels alienated by and powerless over the later; looked at the creaking devolution settlements, and took seriously the demands of the nations and regions for more power to be ceded by the centre.
There was initially some promise that the political establishment recognised the need to meet Brexit - a seismic rejection of the political status quo and the received wisdom of the majority of the political class - with an equally seismic moment of national self-reflection. May spoke of the potential for Brexit to be a “great moment of national change to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be.” This could have been realised as a momentous exercise in deliberation and democracy just as Unlock Democracy’s report, A Democratic Brexit, proposed 18 months ago.
A project by Westminster, for Westminster
That initial promise was never fulfilled, as the government chose to tread another path. Toxic debate and division have been prefered over consensus-building, procedural trickery and back-room manoeuvering were chosen over transparency and openness, centralised control by the executive was adopted over meaningful public or parliamentary deliberation.
The actions of the May government have exemplified some of the most destructive elements of a decaying and overly centralised British state that concentrates too much power in the hands of too few. May’s grand overture to collaboration, calling on MPs to “work constructively together” and realise their duty to “reach a consensus”, look like the most cynical of public relations strategies when just the next day Number 10 told the journalist lobby in parliament that no flexibility would be shown in any key areas. Calling for collaboration is meaningless and hollow when the two months until the article 50 deadline means there is no time to do so, and with the withdrawal deal finalised meaning there is no real option for change.
Throughout the Brexit process May and her government have wielded the sheer might of the state to stifle debate and refuse any opportunities for collaboration or consensus-building. May unilaterally fixed the negotiation objectives without any involvement from MPs, and then used the government’s control of the parliamentary timetable to cut short debate on critical Brexit legislation. Under her watch her ministers have lied to select committees and flat out refused to subject themselves to scrutiny when called on to do so. Her government has been held in contempt of parliament after refusing to publish legal advice they had received. Even if there was the appetite among MPs for consensus-building and working together to find a way forward, May’s actions ensured it would not have been possible.
The fracturing constitution
What’s clear is that the political class in Westminster is failing us. How can the country heal and go forward together when the political class is torn apart and unwilling to take the lead? The toxicity emanating from Westminster has spilled over into public life, onto the front pages of newspapers, into our homes, into our relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.
Brexit has shone a light on the archaic conventions and procedures that politicians can exploit in shrouds of opacity to get their own way. It has exposed how extensive the powers of the government are to control from the centre even when it has no majority, and how powerless MPs so often are to democratically hold the government to account and scrutinise its actions.
We are two months away from exit day, and MPs still cannot agree amongst themselves what the course forward should be. Whatever happens beyond the 29 March, Brexit has raised very serious questions about the fundamental nature of the British state. It has raised questions about the extent of unchecked government power and how it is wielded to evade scrutiny and undermine parliament; it has raised questions about the relationship between Westminster and the devolved nations regions, and increasingly centralised power; it has raised questions about where sovereignty should lie - in parliament, as constitutionally defined - or in the people - as seems to be being demanded.
Firing the starting gun for a reboot of UK democracy
Calls for May’s deal to be put to a referendum are growing louder. If politicians are deadlocked then then they should turn once more to the public - they did so with the question of EU membership, so too can they now return with a question on the substance of that relationship.
It is, however, imperative to consider what happens beyond what comes immediately next. A referendum on May’s deal would help to settle the narrow question of what our specific and immediate relationship with the EU will be. But on its own, a referendum will not create a less fractious politics, or heal the gaping divisions that have been opened up.
Tinkering around the edges of the British political system is not enough. This will not heal divisions, overcome alienation, or empower people to have real control over their lives and communities. The UK needs a radical and full-scale reboot of our democracy. As Caroline Lucas MP suggested, a referendum should be seen as a “starting gun on the race to genuinely democratise the UK”, not just an end point. We need to “look anew at the way Britain is governed, not just the EU but by Westminster as well”.
The UK needs a new settlement that redefines the relationship between the public and the state, and that brings the public together to decide what we want for the future of our country. A constitutional convention would give a space to the public to deliberate, look beyond Brexit, and imagine a bold, new, radically democratic future. The convention could look at how to revive the devolution settlements for the nations and regions, create a fairer voting system, and put an end to a House of Lords built on patronage. It could also address how to reinvigorate the NHS and make sure it is truly accessible to all, and explore how to respond to climate change in the here and now so that our environment is protected for the public today and the generations of the future. It could come up with a pioneering vision for workers’ rights in the age of AI and robotisation, so that people and communities are not exploited or forgotten as they were after the decline of industry in the 1980s.
Another democracy is possible
A new constitution - one written by and for the people - could upend the power structures of the British state, giving control to the people once and for all. It could get rid of the archaic powers in Westminster that concentrates so much unaccountable power in the hands of so few. It could set the limits on what the government can and cannot legitimately do in our name, and bring an end to living precariously on the wildly varying whims of the government of the day.
Brexit has created an opportunity to do things differently, and also shown that we must do democracy differently. However Brexit ends, we need a new political system in its wake to engage the public in a process so many feel excluded from.
We must demand more from our democracy, because a better political system is possible. But a better system cannot be delivered by the broken institutions of the British state. These have atrophied and are decaying, crumbling under pressure, just like the Parliament buildings themselves.
We need a democratic revolution. Now is the time for a new constitution that protects our rights, rolls back Westminster’s creeping project of centralisation, and let’s the people - not an aloof and distant elite - decide how our voices are heard, what the government can and can’t do in our name, and what rights and freedoms we want protected from the whims of the political class.