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Brexit Britain’s stagnant democracy

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  • Economic democracy

Sometimes the new can be observed in the old despite murky waters. Parliament has drawn ferocious criticism, as both main party leaders have done also, for the gridlock that Brexit has become. Any solution that now emerges is likely to be out of desperation rather than careful consideration. Gridlock of this sort was meant to be a feature of pluralistic political systems such as is the norm in Europe and North America not majoritarian systems such as the UK. And yet, here we are, the biggest decision to face Parliament for decades, and it is stuck.

And yet, maybe Parliament is doing one of its jobs – reflecting the views of the people. There is nothing more grating in politics than hearing politicians and media commentators quoting the views of 'the British public' as if it were a single organism. Show me a politician quoting ‘the public’ – or ‘what I’m hearing on the doorstep’ – and I’ll show you where the off-switch is. And on Brexit as anything else there isn’t a singular view of something called ‘the public’.

ICM, the polling company, asked for views on the various current options around Brexit. The most favoured option was supported by only 28 percent of the public. That was a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The next favoured option was a referendum with 24 percent. Only 8 percent of respondents want Theresa May to pursue her deal. So the electorate is just as divided as Parliament. One could argue that leave, as the option supported by a majority of those who voted in the EU referendum, is the will of the people. But how can we know given the context has moved on and they haven’t been asked for their considered view?

Undoubtedly, there is a strong mood of ‘just get on with it’ and I suspect that is what is showing up in the support for ‘no deal’ Brexit but there is strong support for referring it back to voters also. Everybody wants Governments and Parliament to do what ‘the public’ wants, thinking their own mind is representative of the ‘the public’ but that’s not democracy, it’s autocracy. The reality though is that Parliament is divided because the people are divided. And the referendum gave Parliament a destination without any navigational tools. Predictably, Parliament got lost and it has ended up waded into a bit of a stagnant pond.   

Pluralism is hardly a bug of democracy; it is the opposite: a feature. And this applies even over the most significant and divisive issues such as whether the UK should remain part of the European Union or on what terms it should leave. What should not be a feature of a functioning democracy is the absence of mechanisms to resolve impasse. In this, the UK has joined the US, in the midst of a Federal shutdown, and numerous fragmented European democracies. Arguably, Theresa May sought to create some dialogue in the aftermath of her gargantuan Parliamentary defeat. One participant in the talks, with a reputation for reasonableness, remarked that ‘the door was open but the mind was closed’. Britain has an emerging pluralism caged in a majoritarian mindset. To discuss is seen as weakness rather than strength. And too often when conversation happens, it’s too tactical and too constrained.

The easy argument to make here is that the UK’s constitution should become more pluralist in orientation. And, for sure, institutional reforms are sorely needed. Already, the constitution has moved in the direction of greater pluralism in the past couple of decades – not least through the creation of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, some English cities and in Northern Ireland for a period of time (and, lest we forget, through our membership of the European Union). The party system clearly is a creature of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Neither Labour nor the Tories seem to be particularly cohesive political forces (to the extent they every were) and executive power rests on the shakiest ground.

Necessary though changes to the constitution, electoral system and party system may seem, they don’t provide the whole answer by any stretch of the imagination- just look at the similar challenges faced by very different democracies across the Channel and the Atlantic. And yet, in an age of populism, social media tribes, and a demanding yet fundamentally conflicted democratic culture, we can’t just revert to a safer culture of representative democracy where the voice of the public is contained and managed.

Deliberative democracy, strongly endorsed by the RSA and many others, is certainly worthy of very serious experimentation. Citizens assemblies have enormous potential in generating considered consensus and appropriately framing issues – by, for example, deciding on the structure of questioning within any future referendum. The most important feature of deliberative democracy is in many ways symbolic: pluralistic systems have to resolve political conflict through consideration of evidence and dialogue.

An unwillingness to enter into any form of meaningful dialogue is anchored in something even deeper though - a widespread exclusion in British society from esteem, from justice, from security. Democracy is seen as culprit rather than saviour. Some of the motivating force behind Brexit lies in this sense of exclusion. Without considering the sweep of assets that citizens require to acquire greater parity of status with one another, economic and social as well as civic, our democracy will lurch this way and that and then have periods of stagnation and discord. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, it says something about the health of our democracy. And as we attempt to cast off from the continent, the UK ship is divided and mistrustful. At some point this will have to be faced. For now, we wade in a stagnant pond.

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  • Honestly, Anthony, RSA is talking only about deliberative democracy these days  -  now that it has restyled itself as a "campaigning" organisation. Indeed RSA has become a cult of (campaigning) contempt towards representative democracy.

    The comments about Brexit  -  well, you seem torn between wringing your hands and washing your hands. All you say is well-we-would-have-never-got-into-this-mess-in-the-first-place but you do not think it anything other than beneath you to give advice to MPs, to explore the consequences of an abrupt departure from the EU, to prepare the UK for eventual reconnection with EU institutions. It is indeed entirely in the logic of your position that you will welcome a second Scottish Brexit-precipitated independence referendum  -  more localism is always good, no?

    I have to tell you that, nobody important, I believe that the RSA is being very poorly led at this critical moment for social democracy and economic wellbeing.

  • Why does RSA want to get engaged in just about every issue except Brexit?

    Yes, it's fine to complain about the current state of the UK constitution, etc.

    But how should MPs now vote? Which version of Brexit is best for us all? Or a People's Vote?

    Let's stop pretending that the think tank elite, ethereally above the fray, does not have to decide!

    • In fairness James, the whole of this piece is about Brexit and what underpins it. There's bucket loads of content in RSA blogs and events on Brexit and you'll see it covered in our research work on economic insecurity, the Citizens' Economic Council, and many other places.

      There are many think tanks doing excellent work in the field such as the Institute for Government and UK and the EU. We try to make an additional contribution whilst respecting the diversity of views within the Fellowship.

  • For some time I have been concerned that social and economic factors were undermining the ability of democracy to provide a secure basis for governing. Economic globalisation, technological change and the sheer range of activities now available to absorb people's time were rendering citizen engagement weaker, and the complexity of modern life is making it progressively harder for most people - in the course of busy lives - to properly understand what decisions would truly reflect their interests and values. It seemed as if democracy had reached the point of the Roman Empire under Hadrian: from now on an erratic but long, slow and permanent decline. 


    However, the concept of deliberative democracy seems to me to offer a way ahead. Of course, it needs to work alongside representative and/or direct democracy, but as part of the way of finding answers which work and are accepted as legitimate it could have real merit. Citizens Juries, a similar concept, have been found useful for much the same reasons. 


    There are, however, two factors which need to be addressed before deliberative democracy can work fully. One is education: people need to understand the idea and recognise its fairness. The other sounds like a pure issue of implementation, but is vital. This is avoiding both the reality and any appearance of bias in the (random) selection process. One of the merits of the UK's 'paper and pencil' system of voting is that whilst minor breach can occur, systematic fraud would be difficult to achieve. It would be necessary to ensure that selection for any citizen assembly would truly random and could be seen to be so. 

    • Thank you Simon. I agree entirely. There is some distance to go with engaging the public in the concept and we look forward to continue working with a range of partners to continue to test it out. Look out for our work on AI and ethics published soon. And we'll have some news about place-based deliberative democracy soon.

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