Amid the fallout from the recent local elections and the looming European Parliament polls, it’s easy to lose sight of the more fundamental crisis facing British democracy. Britain’s twice-delayed departure from the European Union is an expression of the longstanding decay of our representative institutions, which shows no sign of reversing. Although both Tory and Labour leaderships insist on the need to listen to voters and get Brexit ‘done’, the likelihood of this actually happening seems very slight.
More probable are further delays, coupled with ongoing efforts to neutralise Brexit politically, by so softening it that it becomes pointless or unattractive, or by pursuing a second referendum to negate the first.
To understand the situation and where we are heading, it’s first important to take a step back and understand what is at stake with Brexit, and why it has been so badly handled. For this, I rely on the analysis that we have been developing at The Full Brexit.
At the heart of the Tories’ present disarray is a fundamental misunderstanding of EU membership. Tory Brexiteers understand and present the EU as something external to the British polity: a ‘Brussels bureaucracy’, bossing the UK around. This never made much sense, because Britain is part of EU structures: Britain nominates EU Commissioners; Britain elects members of the European parliament; and British ministers sit in the Council.
But this simplistic ‘us/them’ conception is much easier to grasp than the more complex reality: that the EU is a complex form of transnational, multilevel governance through which the executive branches of member-states coordinate their policies and rule their populations. It is not an external entity but arises from, and further entrenches, the internal transformation of European states from nation-states into member states.
This involves the relocation of policymaking from domestic legislatures into transnational governance structures – primarily the Commission and Council – insulated from direct democratic oversight, which enable the locking in of neoliberal policy sets. Politically, this transformation involves the retreat of political parties from their social bases as they reorient around this neoliberal consensus. Ruling elites come to derive their policy directions and legitimacy more from their secretive relations with European counterparts than their representative relations with their own domestic publics.
From this perspective, leaving the EU was always going to be more of a test of sovereignty than its straightforward restoration. The EU is not simply a ‘club’ (or a ‘trading arrangement’) that one can simply drop out of, instantly restoring the status quo ante. Forty years of European integration have radically hollowed out our democratic institutions. Our political parties lack any serious experience of defining a vision for the country’s future and developing policies to realise it.
Our elected representatives did not come into politics to lead society in new directions, or to fundamentally transform how the state operates; they thought it involved nothing more heroic than regulating breakfast cereals. As the woeful performance and emotional collapse of its members when confronted by a real constitutional challenge have demonstrated, parliament has dwindled to something akin to the debating chamber of a local council or a student union, dealing only with the pettiest matters of our collective life. Genuinely ‘taking back control’ was always going to be a monumental task, and it is now clear that our attenuated political establishment was simply not up to it.
Parliament’s proper role after the referendum result was to accept the electorate’s instruction, debate and define what Brexit should involve (the appropriate function of representative democracy, not a binary referendum), and then oversee its implementation. This did not happen, largely because most parliamentarians simply could not accept the result. Three-quarters of MPs had backed Remain, versus only 48 percent of their electors, exposing the void that had opened up between the people and their elected representatives during four decades of European integration.
Rather than seizing the opportunity to close this void by accepting and being disciplined by the voters’ instruction, MPs railed against the result. Time was wasted in pointless legal challenges over Article 50 and a Labour leadership contest marked by bitter recriminations over the referendum.
Parliament’s failure to confront the serious task of restoring sovereign self-government meant that Britain continued to behave like an EU member-state. As soon as Article 50 was triggered, the democratic space to shape Brexit collapsed. Officials negotiated in secret before emerging with a fait accompli: the very hallmark of EU governance. British representatives did not enter the talks bolstered by realistic ‘no deal’ preparations, recognising a fundamental clash of interests and making tough demands to secure their goals. They were instead constrained by the suffocating norms of ‘constructiveness’ among ‘partners’, which steer EU governments towards compromising with each other, even at the expense of their own electorates.
The result was a Withdrawal Agreement that manifestly failed to restore sovereign self-government, maintaining a potentially indefinite EU suzerainty through the backstop. The Tory right rebelled against this, but still failed to exercise meaningful leadership.
For the rest of parliament, however, the trouble with the WA is that it failed to bind Britain closely enough to EU structures. A series of votes and extraordinary parliamentary shenanigans revealed the true problem: a deep, existential terror of self-government. It seemed that the political class would do virtually anything to avoid enacting the referendum result.
Sadly, this terror of self-government is most deeply felt by the Labour Party, which, for all its pretensions to radicalism, clearly lacks the confidence to lead the social-democratic transformation that Brexit enables.
How are we meant to believe that Labour is poised to revolutionise British society, when it clearly feels unable to maintain even the feeble protections afforded by EU labour and environmental regulations by enacting domestic legislation? How can its pledges to revitalise British industry, renationalise the railways and create state investment banks be squared with its insistence on remaining in the Customs Union, which radically restricts state aid?
How can a party whose platform, if enacted, would probably elicit massive capital flight, survive within a Union that enshrines the free movement of capital as a sacred principle? The only reasonable conclusion is that the Labour Party is not actually serious about doing these things, or at least has no faith in its capacity to win power.
Both main parties conjure up demons to explain away their incapacity to lead the restoration of sovereign self-government. For the Tory Brexiteers, Brexit is being ‘betrayed’ by ‘Brussels’ or a ‘weak’ prime minister – but the survival of the evidently useless Theresa May merely reveals their own inability to lead. The left and centre, meanwhile, fall back on tired claims about the illegitimacy of the referendum itself, blaming Facebook or Russian bots, or branding Brexit a ‘far right’ project promoted by people worse than Nazis – literally anything to avoid to simple truth: the majority of voters, when asked by parliament to make a decision, decided to leave the EU, and it is MPs’ responsibility to implement this decision. These are the demons of a living nightmare for our political class, one from which they are desperate to awake.
The postponement of Brexit has given vital breathing space to the Remainers hoping to cancel or at least politically neutralise Brexit. A government unable to force its deal through is now being compelled to negotiate with the opposition, raising hopes of a ‘softer’ form of ‘Brexit in name only’. This would so minimise the policy autonomy gains from leaving the EU that, if a second referendum were held, many voters may well conclude that it hardly seems worth the bother.
Indeed, this seems to be the implicit hope of Remainer elites. The longer they string out the process, the more demoralised Leave voters become, the more ‘pointless’ Brexit is made to appear. The nightmare, they hope, will eventually come to an end, and things will go back to normal.
Remainers’ elation was subsequently shaken by the major parties’ poor showing in the local elections and especially by the explosive launch of the Brexit Party, which is already polling at 30 percent in the forthcoming European Parliament elections. This has spurred both Labour and Tory leaderships to signal a need to ‘get on with’ Brexit, raising hopes of a swift agreement. Yet it remains hard to see how this could happen.
The EU will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, meaning any changes must be made to the Political Declaration on the future relationship. Yet, because no parliament can bind its successor, it is unclear what assurances Labour can secure that a future Tory leader could not simply renege upon.
Moreover, the de facto customs union Labour seeks – let alone a provision for a second, ‘confirmatory’ referendum – would provoke Tory rebellion, and it is not even clear that Corbyn could successfully whip his MPs to back a so-called ‘Tory Brexit.’ Fundamentally, until the political class accepts the absolute necessity of implementing the electorate’s instruction, deadlock will persist – and they still show no sign of doing so.
Ultimately, the Remain establishment may conclude that they can rely on the least democratic aspects of the British political system to ride out the storm, kicking Brexit into the long grass and preparing for a second referendum to overturn the first. Although the main parties will get hammered in the European elections, in the general elections, they will be propped up by the unrepresentative first-past-the-post system, containing the threat of the Brexit Party in particular.
Furthermore, moves are already underway to curtail criticism of parliament’s anti-democratic manoeuvrings: the Brexit Party is accused of ‘hate speech’ and ‘incitement to violence’; the police warn citizens to watch their language and assemble 10,000 riot cops to confront ‘civil unrest’; MPs propose harsher sentences for those ‘harassing’ them, and urge the police to suppress protestors even before any offence is committed.
Although there is undoubtedly increasing and unacceptable harassment of MPs, which should be confronted, there is also an unacceptable attempt to redefine voluble and strident criticism as ‘harassment’ or ‘hate speech’. This authoritarian ‘Soubryism’ is clearly an attempt to evade the political consequences of scorning the electorate.
Whether Remainer MPs can pull this off remains to be seen. They are hoping that Leave voters will lose heart and return to their depoliticised pre-referendum condition. Before the launch of the Brexit Party, this did not seem unrealistic: the Newport West by-election, held at the peak of the Brexit fiasco, saw a miserable turnout of just 37 percent, resulting in a Labour hold with a diminished majority, and third-placed UKIP nowhere near.
Given Remainer MPs’ fundamental reluctance to implement Brexit, they are only likely to do so if they perceive an existential threat to themselves and/or their own political parties. Thus, unless the Brexit Party can somehow prepare to mount a genuine threat in a general election, the prospects for a meaningful Brexit being enacted seem meagre at best.
By Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-founder of The Full Brexit.