Why has Brexit broken British democracy? - RSA

Why has Brexit broken British democracy?

Blog 11 Comments

  • Leadership

Watching Brexit is like watching a Jenga tower being constructed in slow motion.

Everything looks stable, slowly building - the wobbles and structural weaknesses remain hidden. And just as we seem to be getting towards something solid, the whole thing is knocked down and we start once more.

(Or, to use another analogy: UK democracy seems condemned to roll the boulder of Brexit up a hill for eternity - like Sisyphus but in Brussels, not Hades.)

Why has Brexit caused us to get stuck like this? Because it’s a problem that requires a consensus approach, and British democracy is built on majorities. Until we can address that mis-match, we won’t be able to find a lasting way forward.

Types of democracy and Britain

The idea of different types of democratic cultures goes back to the work of Arend Lijphart and his two types of democracies: majoritarian and consensus.

In this system, Britain was the leading example of a ‘majoritarian democracy’ - a country with an electoral system which creates artificial majorities for governing parties in normal circumstances.

We’re used to two main parties in the House of Commons, divided by economics/class, with one having a clear majority. But times are changing. Powerful divisions have opened up between and within the big parties on both:

  • economics since the 2008 financial crash and the austerity that followed
  • culture and identity politics in the context of Brexit.

Brexit would be a huge change, so this isn’t surprising. Also, deep divisions were hidden for some time. Perhaps the majority that the 2005 Labour Government acquired for just over a third of the vote was a warning shot. Fragmentation was coming.

Which brings us to Lijphart’s other type: ‘consensus democracy’. These are democratic systems where a large number of parties regularly work together in coalitions, looking for common ground between different groups. They are more common in divided countries, as a way to manage differences in society.

Lijphart himself is Dutch and it is no coincidence that he could see from his own country how a consensus system could produce consistent economic policy, strong welfare and action on environmental harms, despite divisions.

The problem that the UK is facing is a sudden mix of majoritarian and consensus structures and culture. In different ways, Italy, the United States, and Israel are facing the same problem too.

The clash between majoritarian culture and consensus structures

A majoritarian system works by sorting the decision that a society has to make into two choices (as parties develop their policies), then one decision (when one party takes control, even with a low percentage of the vote, and has a vote in Parliament).

Time and time again, the decision on how to resolve Brexit seemed to be approaching a binary choice for Parliament. Then, like our Jenga tower, the bricks fell down as we approached the end. Every time it looks like we’ll get down to two Brexit options, others seem to come back onto the table.

This week, a faction of Labour MPs has written to the European Commission signalling their willingness to back any deal that is concluded between the UK and the EU; and a group of sixty Conservative MPs have gone to Downing Street to signal their refusal to back a Conservative manifesto that contained a commitment to ‘no deal’ Brexit. Bricks fall away at the last.

Britain’s majoritarian political culture is stuck when it comes to the EU. The current occupants of 10 Downing Street have decided to take an ultra-majoritarian approach: hyper-adversarial with high stakes. The EU is an ultra-consensual political system. Unsurprisingly, the two political cultures have haven’t been able to find common ground.

The clash between majoritarianism and a consensus cultures is also taking place in Parliament. Both Leave and Remain perspectives have fractured parties into a series of political cartels. As with Narcos-style drug cartels, no one cartel dominates, each has its own (political) territory, and it takes little to ignite turf warfare.

MPs favouring delay to Brexit are currently locked in bloody feud over a possible Prime Minister and Government to put in place following a vote of no confidence in the current Government. Few are willing to put immediate party interest to one side to find a resolution to the Brexit question. This includes the very real opportunity to put a Brexit deal back to the people in a confirmatory referendum process.

Majoritarian mindsets and consensus party structures simply cannot function alongside one another. We are seeing this around the world:

  • Italy found this as Matteo Salvini deliberately collapsed his own Government in order to receive a fresh mandate from the Italian electorate. He hadn’t thought that an unlikely coalition could be formed between the Italian Democratic party and the Five Star Movement. Consensus was reawakened. 
  • A majoritarian culture in an America divided increasingly on party lines has blocked any consensus emerging. (The US system is in normal times a majoritarian system with consensual features, such as strong separation of powers between Executive and Congress.)
  • And in Israel, we have seen the growth of an ethno-nationalist agenda under Prime Minister Netanyahu challenging the country’s pluralist ethos and democracy. This year’s inconclusive election results may be signalling to re-emergence of pluralism and consensus. Similar tensions are increasingly seen in Central and Eastern Europe.

But the clash between culture and structures is still most dramatic in the UK – the traditional exemplar of majoritarian democracy. 

How can we solve Britain’s Brexit democracy problem?

The blame game is getting worse. The Government blames the EU and Parliament for a failure to conclude a deal. The parties in favour of a Brexit delay, including Labour and the Liberal Democrats, continue to blame each other.

We are seeing an impossible experiment in the co-existence of majoritarian political culture and party structures more akin to what is seen in consensus democracies.

The country is deeply divided over Brexit –not just between Leave and Remain but between different Leave options, and also between people who think the 2016 referendum must be the final word or if it was just another democratic vote. Parliament is divided because the country is.

Less substantively, there has been a collective failure of leadership to see the Brexit challenge – how do we make democratic choices?  as bigger than the answer of any one party or faction.

Differences of opinion have hardened into red-lines and then into fundamental moral disgust. There is little room to build consensus out of such radioactive material.

What is the way out of this?

One way would be for a group of political leaders to innovate new democratic institutions to cope with a more fragmented political community. We will have to change our political culture to match our political problems.

In the short-term, that could involve a temporary Government to resolve Brexit one way or another, citizens’ assemblies to frame any questions for a future referendum and consider a range of evidence linked to viable options, and Parliament backing the best Brexit deal - possibly ahead of a possible second referendum.

These solutions take the multi-institutional approach and compromise discourse central to consensus systems.

The other alternative is to resolve this is to double-down on a majoritarian approach in the form of a first-past-the-post General Election.

But then we could end up right back at the starting point  with a pile of Jenga bricks on the floor – if no party wins a majority, or the parties stay bitterly divided on Brexit after a vote. Or we could end pushing through a form of Brexit that creates anger, suffering and pain on a small number of votes.

Only one thing is certain. Time is running out.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • I do rather think this piece is over complicating what's happened since the 2016 Brexit vote. 

    For the first time in many years, decades in fact, the political class were faced with a decision, made by the electorate as it was deferred to them, that they disagreed with, and didn't want to enact. 'Losers consent' was withdrawn, and the social contract continually trashed to avoid having to accept the vote. 

    Everything that's happened since stems from that political failure. 

  • Yes agree interesting article that makes some useful points, but not so sure the suggested solutions are that insightful. In many ways the majoritarian-consensus distinction on its own may be overly simplistic. It’s more a clash between direct participatory democracy and indirect representative democracy that cross-cuts any types of democratic culture.

    For example it is not unknown for the majoritarian structure to accommodate coalition building when required at times of perceived crisis (2010-15 Coalition and earlier examples). Perhaps it is just that Brexit is a unique crisis that involves a foreign third party – the EU. Just too many players are involved in the issue making resolution a long drawn out process - the initial phase of which, a UK government-EU agreement acceptable to the UK parliament, is hopefully close to resolution as I write).

    One can’t help thinking that the divisiveness caused by Brexit hasn’t been helped by MPs continuing to act as representatives rather than seeing themselves in the unique circumstances of Brexit as delegates tasked with undertaking the wishes of the electorate to leave the EU. The referendum should have been seen as a vote on the principle, leaving it to parliament to agree on the ‘how’ to leave. But too many MPs decided to make caveats that even stretched to support for continuing to remain on the grounds of some voters’ ignorance, bigotry etc). Although the referendum was not legally binding it was presented as being politically binding by government and in parliament’s triggering of Article 50. MPs’ behaviour was unfortunately assisted by the release under FOIs of how about one-fifth of parliamentary constituencies voted, and then a rather foolish attempt to ‘estimate’ from these how all other constituencies probably voted using a less than robust methodology that was unable to provide a margin of error for the estimate. This then allowed MPs to feel justified in continuing to represent the ‘views’ of their constituents and ignore the national vote

    Although I don’t share Peter Booth’s pro-Brexit perspective he’s right to point out that the idea of a EU referendum was legitimate in the context of a lack of a proper mandate as the EU’s nature changed, and despite the apparent promise of all three parties in the 2005 General Election to hold a referendum on the proposed European Constitutional Treaty (2004), later forgotten by the Blair government after the ECT morphed into the Lisbon Treaty (Cameron, For the Record). Unfortunately when the referendum was finally held it was over Cameron’s selective ‘renegotiation’ and little attempt in his rushed timescale (for partisan reasons he wouldn’t wait until 2017) to better educate the voter through citizens’ assemblies (i.e. deliberative democracy) before making their decision, as now advocated by Anthony Painter (and Rory Stewart) in any second referendum. 

    Anthony is right about the whole process showing a failure of leadership – a Conservative leader adverse to building ‘consensus’ even in her own party, and a Labour leader with an anti-EU record and AWOL, as Cameron puts it, during the 2016 referendum campaign.

    But overall I’m not as pessimistic about the post-Brexit future and agree with Leon Grandy that British democracy is not necessarily broken. The increasing consensus between the main parties over the need to call a halt to austerity and increase public spending going forward is surely cause for optimism despite arguments over the extent of spending plans in the light of what remains a somewhat fragile economy.

    One can obviously go on and on dissecting Brexit, but I think I’ll leave my thoughts, for what they’re worth, there for now.

  • We urgently need to get rid of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system, as it leaves millions of people disenfranchised, and therefore disengaged from politics. Moving to proportional representation could revitalise Britain. People would be able to vote for the parties they believed in, knowing that their vote would count. In elections that use PV we have seen how this kind of voting can produce results that are significantly different from those at Westminster elections. In Parliament parties would absolutely need to work together as equal partners to create concensus political programmes. Some parties might well not survive. The sooner we get rid of structural majoritarianism the better.

    Personal note: I am a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Green Party. and also, in my view, not one single problem facing British society will be resolved by leaving the EU, as the EU was never the cause of any of them, so I am an unashamed "Remainer".

  • I am surprised that Anthony Painter did not himself suggest a change in our electoral system as an at least partial remedy to the problem he identifies. Denis Loretto rightly advocates proportional representation, but not all forms of PR are necessarily any improvement over First past the post (FPTP). Israel has pure PR with seats being allocated as nearly as possible to the percentage of votes cast for each of the various parties in contention. This leads to the creation of many small parties, with the result that a majority of seats requires the collaboration of enough small parties to get the total over 50%. This gives the last party to agree disproportionate influence over the policies of the resulting coalition, quite often insisting on things the larger parties would never want if they could avoid it. Pure PR also puts all power in the hands of party managers to decide who gets to stand as a candidate for that party, whether and when MPs are deselected, and the MP’s careers in Parliament.

    The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system has much more to commend it. To avoid making this note too long, readers should see why the Electoral Reform Society recommends it (https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/). It produces a close approximation to a proportional result, while allowing electors to vote primarily for individuals and not parties. Crucially it does not encourage a proliferation of small parties, but still gives all of, say, five parties fair representation. It is used in both halves of Ireland (for the Dail and the NI Assembly), in Scotland for local authority elections, and has this year been adopted by Wales for their next Assembly election. It was only last week I heard an Irish politician mentioning that their use of STV encourages consensual politics, in contrast to the tribal warfare in Britain.

    Citizen assemblies have their place in reaching a consensus on a specific complex topic, such as the contents of a written constitution, but are not in my view, any substitute for debate and decisions in a more satisfactorily elected parliament than we have now.

  • Nice article.  But I for one don't think that Brexit has broken British democracy (yet) - after all Brexit hasn't happened - yet.

    But it is undoubted that the Brexit related machinations of a Parliamentary democracy, with a newly ascendant Parliament have seriously undermined confidence in that institution, and the broader role of Government in Society.

    Historically, treaties were strictly Government issues, not Parliamentary ones. Only recently (since the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act) has Parliament had an explicit role in what was a prerogative matter. 

    The decision to seek a Plebiscite on Brexit will likely be judged by history as a truly awful decision. The business of Government is hard enough - having to pay attention to the electorate makes it almost impossible.


Related articles