Brexit as a failure of process

It bothers me greatly that for months now, Boris Johnson has been attacking Parliament – in terms that question its legitimacy as the sovereign democratic institution of our constitution – for the crime of having a different opinion on something to himself. Normally, in a Parliamentary democracy, if the Prime Minister has a different opinion to the Commons, it is he, not they who is, constitutionally, in the wrong.

Now of course, Johnson is entitle to his view and to express it, as is every other MP, and perhaps the problem is that the “other side” does not seem to have a voice. And the reason for this is that it isn’t clear who the other side is. The official opposition has largely taken a ‘wait and see’ approach to the whole business. There are a number of groups within Parliament, some seeking harder or softer Brexits, or a referendum, or to remain, or to keep quiet while your opponent makes a mistake.

There is no Parliamentary majority for any one of these options. Nor is there in the country – unless it is for Remain. Somehow the country has committed itself to a course of action without deciding in any detail what that course of action is. This was, in part, a deliberate strategy by the Leave campaign, not least because they wouldn’t have agreed among themselves whether to go hard or soft, etc. For decades British Eurosceptics have demanded membership of a free trade club not a political one, and it is only after the referendum that membership of the Single Market or EFTA has become “Brexit in name only”.

Strategically, the ambiguity also allowed the best of both worlds to be sold. “The exact same advantages” as membership in trading with the EU, and the “freedom” to strike new trade deals around the world. The two were always inconsistent. Trade deals are full of agreed rules, and there is conflict in agreeing to have rules in common with two different blocs who have different rules. The word “freedom” was also doing a lot of slippery work. If we lose all the EU’s free trade deals with the rest of the world, yes we can make new ones, but how many decades will it take us to catch up with what the EU has?

This may just seem like cavalier, charlatan politics. What makes it a failure of process? Well, normally in a democracy, in order to change something, you need a majority for a specific change, not just a majority for a general idea. Try proposing a one-line bill in Parliament that reads “Abolish OfSted and replace it with something better” and you will see the problem. You could even claim that your opponents hate children but you won’t create a majority for an actual proposal that doesn’t already exist.

This is what we have done with Brexit. Parliament is stalemated, yes, and it should be. No MP, hard, soft, remain or whatever, is obliged to agree with any other MP, to vote for anybody else’s particular Brexit outcome, and there is nothing that gives Johnson priority. The leave plan, such as it was, was a hope that MPs would be weakened to the point that momentum would overcome stalemate. That they would give up control. I hope our democracy survives that plan.

Johnson will say it’s a Remainer parliament. It isn’t. If it were, it would vote for a referendum or revokation. Rather, a majority of MPs would have voted for a Brexit on their terms.

But the polls suggest a Remainer majority in the country. So the next Parliament…

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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7 Comments

  • George Burn 30th Oct '19 - 8:25pm

    Interesting thoughts, thanks.

    All this talk of Johnson being the victim of an obstructive Parliament gets it the wrong way around. It is the Government’s responsibility to get business through the Houses of Parliament. If it can’t, it is its failure, no one else’s.

    Of course a minority Government is going to find that challenging, but that only makes it more important for that Government to build the necessary alliances by negotiating and compromising.

    The Cummings agenda, so enthusiastically lapped up by the right wing press, ignores all of this but the truth of the Johnson regime is that it has failed at virtually every turn. It should not be blaming MPs for not falling into line often enough. The amazing thing is how tolerant of failure are Tory supporters.

  • I lived in Switzerland for 7 years. They have referenda every three months there on average, and so have learned quite a lot about how to conduct them effectively and fairly. While we shouldn’t adopt their system lock, stock and barrel, there are a couple of principles we’d do well to consider.
    (1) Referendums are called to decide on *fully-drafted bills* — rather than being an initial instruction to parliament to pursue a direction, they are the final approval step, and occur after full debate in parliament / legislature / council.
    (2) Parliament / legislatures / councils are required to send every household a summary in plain language of what is proposed. This is mandated by law to be “comprehensive, objective, transparent and proportional,” and to set out the main opinions expressed during the debate — both for and against the proposal
    (3) If the proposal comes from a “popular initiative” (a legally-enforceable petition), the government has the right to put a counter-proposal to the vote at the same time. Both proposals need to have a fully-drafted bill behind them, and both need to be explained to voters per #2
    (4) Results can be (and have successfully been) overturned in court if it is found that #1 and #2 were not complied with.

    If we are going to use popular votes to supplement the traditional role of parliament in making laws, we’d do well to implement something similar here. Many of the failures of the last 3 years could have been avoided.

    (Source: Loi fédérale sur les droits politiques 161.1, Articles 10a and 11 — https://www.admin.ch › 161.1.fr.pdf)

  • The situation to me is clear. The Conservatives were in a majority after the latest referendum on the EU. They had the brilliant idea of giving notice to the rest of the EU that they were leaving, but not telling the rest of the EU what they actually wanted to do. At least that is the message they put out. They failed to tell anyone what their aims were and the sum of their tactics were to keep talking up to the last moment and then put a proposal to the parliament which parliament would have to accept. This failed.
    So the Conservative party decided to change leader but not their tactics. This is the chaos that the Conservative party have created.
    In the meanwhile they intend to fight an election on the basis that we can take back control from ourselves and give it to an external body which the EU will then be.
    I have had the opportunity of talking to people from a number of countries in the last month. They have watched the performances in Commons with incredulity. The speaker seems to have become an international star. No one has expressed any views on the underlying issues, although a number have asked me what is going on.

  • Arnold Kiel 31st Oct '19 - 6:57am

    You are absolutely right, Joe, but it was fully intentional. Brexit-MPs knew they were small in numbers and Parliament would never vote to leave. A referendum was their only chance. And it had to be unspecific: “a simple in-out-referendum”, as if this were a laudable quality for constitutional decision-making. If the Swiss rules were introduced (they don’t even have a PM), all MPs would quickly lose interest in referendums.

    And it needed preparation: 10 years of cuts (anyhow Brexiters’ true vision for the country) after the financial crash produced the necessary public discontent to be harvested. The final trick was to counterfactually link these grievances about purely domestic issues (triggered by the aspired-to American model) to the EU. I am mentioning campaign-law violations and psychologically weaponised social-media just for completeness sake.

    I would not call it a failure of process, which could be interpreted as having happened by accident. It was an intentional sabotage of parliamentary, representative processes by injecting an abusive referendum which established processes could not cope with.

    To this day, no more than 100 MPs really want Brexit to happen. It is shocking to see what they have achieved by breaking all the rules, and with the help of many spineless MPs.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 31st Oct '19 - 10:52am

    I think that creating the present chaos in our democracy is a consequence of a deliberate campaign. Brexit was and is a means of destabilising and disempowering our democratic system.
    Who benefits from this? Not the discontented and excluded ordinary people who were badly damaged by the financial crash. No, it’s the wealthy people and big companies who do not wish to play their part in society. They know that a democratic society uses regulation and taxation so that standards of production, e.g. to protect the environment, are enforced and the income from taxation is available to provide services for everyone.
    What these anti-social wealthy people and owners see is that democracy makes them poorer. They’d like to stop it.
    I’m not suggesting that all wealthy people and all companies are complicit in this campaign, far from it. But it is our misfortune that much of the press and media in the UK is owned by people with these views, who use their influence to shape political opinion.
    They have created a situation where arguing for Remain is often perceived as arguing against “what everybody knows”.
    This election’s going to be a tough fight but we have a very clear and distinctive position as the party of Revoke, while most other parties will be competing for the Leave vote.

  • * entitleD

  • Peter Hirst 1st Nov '19 - 6:01pm

    The main issue is that our governance is too executive driven. It means a Prime Minister can do more or less what he wants. If Brexit has shown anything, it is that we need a full constitutional review to rebalance power. Many politicians are not interested in processes and that is why we need strong ones to prevent them using whatever happens to progress their own agenda.

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