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The real democratic question

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  • Leadership

Yesterday my colleague Ed Cox joined the widespread condemnation of the proroguing of Parliament. We enjoy a debate at the RSA, so here is my rather different take.

The willingness of large parts of the British political and media establishment to fall into the trap being set for it by Team Johnson is remarkable. The proroguing of Parliament has been undertaken to elicit exactly the response it is receiving.

The public are being told by the opposition and various commentators and celebrities that democracy is at an end. But next week Parliament will meet and most folk will wonder what all the fuss was about.

This has the neat psychological effect of making the public more sceptical about other (more credible) warnings of doom – for example, over the consequences of no deal.

All the hysteria also helps convince the EU that the Johnson administration is willing to be big, bad and bold – something that is helpful in seeking concessions on the backstop and other matters.

Suspending Parliament narrows MPs' choices 

There were two key tactical reasons Theresa May failed to get her deal across the line.

The first was that from early on it became clear there are three options for the UK – leaving without a deal, leaving with a deal, or not leaving. None of these options has a majority in the country or Parliament.

Second, MPs could individually vote for whatever options they wanted without having to take responsibility for the overall outcome, which was deadlock.

But after the EU summit in October, MPs will face a clear choice. Either support the new deal Boris Johnson has managed to negotiate (probably substantively similar to the May deal but superficially different) or effectively vote for leaving with no deal.

In other words, in a situation with three options the one which is consistently the most popular among the general population (remain/second referendum) will simply not be up for consideration.

It is this - not the loss of four Parliamentary days from the timetable – that is the real democratic issue.

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  • This has produced some very erudite responses.  So well worth reading everyone's input. 

    I am not sure this is a trap, more of a blunder which has led to an unelected body (the Supreme Court) making a judgement stating the prorogation prevented Parliament from performing its constitutional function. This is a very dangerous precedent.  We are ruled. officially, by a lawmaking Parliament and the judges enact those laws. This seems to me to be the reverse of what it should b, the SC has dictated that the current government should be over-ruled and Parliament re-convened so as to "exercise its constitutional function." I find that particularly risible as Parliament has not done so for years.  Three years to be exact.   The role of Parliament is to enact the will of the people, they have signally failed to do so.

    As for "democracy being at an end" - ask the general public what they think of the current Parliament and they will probably tell you that our democracy is being torn to shreds by the very people we elected, probably backed by well concealed personal and business interests.   It amazes me that Parliamentarians witter on about populism and the possibility of anarchy and civil disobedience - and yet they are hardly setting an example.  We have just reconvened a Parliament filled with hypocrisy, hostility and violence rather than responsible representatives who are there to objectively scrutinise legislation.  Furthermore, If it is confirmed that Benn and Co acted in collusion with the EU over the latest attempt to hobble Brexit then that will merely illustrate to the voters that neither the EU nor our own Parliamentarians have any regard for the democratic principles.
     am not sure where the idea that the general population want a remain/second referendum comes from.  There are so many polls that contradict each other on the issue that it is impossible to say what the public want -  except some sort of conclusion. This blunder has not helped one bit to move us forward.  

    • Thank you for raising this subject. It is an area that calls for critical thinking. 


      As a new member, I am surprised by the level of this debate by members. A few have asked "what is democracy?" which goes to the heart of the issue. Yet this was not taken up. Instead, sides seem to have been taken rather than critical reflection of one's own opinions. The RSA   "believes in a world where everyone is able to participate in creating a better future". Participation is surely not just to follow the psychological manipulation of an elite but where critical inquiry is taught and encouraged. MPs must have a lot of facts about things like the EU and the Good Friday agreement that even if we had them presented in an unbiased way we would be unlikely to fully understand. Government and all political parties choose the "facts" that support their own interests. MPs, in our democracy, can form their own opinions independently and have done so over Brexit. What they have failed to do, as the 2016 referendum failed to do,was to communicate those facts to the public. Much of the public, now with an attention span less than my 4 year old granddaughter, are too lazy for anything other an amygdala reaction. Some members seem to have fallen into this cultural trap. I expected more.   


      Could we have more resources on critical thinking? Could the RSA encourage members to apply it?

      • I welcome Matthew's lateral 'take' on this topic and I agree with much of your content. The quintessence of party politics is that disinformation, 'spin' and selective forgetting of facts are invaluable tools in the art of persuasion of the elctorate in one direction or another. I was astonished, whilst researching the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement to learn that there is no explicit mention in its many articles of the border itself. I may be rfemiss in my research or it may be that the word 'border' is itself a banned word. There are however institutions set up under the Agreement to ensure ongoing discussion and accord between the North and the South. As for the amygdala, I am sure that there are many childen created through an amygdala reaction. It has its place, when the ocean of 'facts' or 'untruths' are presented to an unwitting population. We should make decisions with our cognitive brains, but our social constructs, sub-conscious and even our spleen can contribute when the decision required is beyond normal human capacity for a totally rational choice.


  • The strategy of further negotiation with the EU by Her Majesty's Government to get the best exit deal possible was it seems to me to let the EU decide if a no-deal UK exit or not is a realistic option for it too.


    If not the EU would have to ask how this could be avoided. In other words put the power of negotiation in the hands of Her Majesty's Government at the 11th hour.

    Now the Rebel Parliament may have have thwarted this, does The Queen give ascent to a law aimed to undermine her own Government's strategy and put the power in the hands of the EU?

    To make the matter more complicated it has been reported in The Times I hear that this law was formulated as a result of collusion and conspiracy by delegations from the Rebel Parliament to the EU.  

  • I will add. It seems that the mantra of 'Sovereignty of Parliament' now really means in effect  Sovereignty of Parliamentary Political Party Leaderships? 


    Hence a snap General Election might help to clariify this matter where those Members that do not represent the majority of their constituents could be put out of Parliament.

    With a truely BREXIT supporting Parliament, the amount of legislation needed to smooth exit may then be focused upon rather than frustrated at every opportunity. 

  • I don't agree that the proroguing of Parliament has been undertaken to elicit exactly the response it is receiving.  That seems to me to be too sophisticated an explanation.  And proroguing is much more important than Brexit of whatever stripe.  I'm against proroguing because muzzling Parliament is a slippery slope.  In the longer term, we have to work out how representative and direct democracy are going to work, but in the meantime, limiting Parliament's deliberations is profoundly anti-democratic and will only store up trouble.

  • So, what is the plan for passing the remaining Brexit legislation? In the 3 years since the referendum, Parliament has managed to pass 6 of the 13 or 14 Acts needed for Brexit (13 for a deal, 14 for a no-deal)* and 605** of the estimated 800-1000*** pieces of secondary legislation needed.

    On this basis, I would have expected Leave campaigners to insist that Parliament keep sitting until the remaining 7 or 8 Acts and hundreds of pieces of secondary legislation are approved; in other words, more or less the opposite of the government's approach.

    Proroguing Parliament makes it harder to prepare the legislative ground either for a deal or for a no-deal. The EU's negotiating team will be aware of the slow progress of Brexit legislation, so it also has an effect on how seriously the UK's negotiating position is taken.

    One suggestion is to use the Civil Contingencies Act to bypass Parliament; the House of Lords Library has a briefing on this****. Amongst other things, it shows that if Parliament is prorogued, it must be recalled to consider any emergency regulations made under this Act.

    Another possibility is to do what General Pinochet did following the coup in Chile, and what was done in Bolivia in 1985: bundle all the requisite legislation into one enormous document (nicknamed "The Brick" in the case of Chile) that is too big for line-by-line scrutiny, and get it all approved in one go. Naomi Klein has documented this approach in her book "The Shock Doctrine".

    Delaying Brexit again would of course allow other options, but Johnson has promised not to do this.


    * https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/charts/parliamentary-progress-legislation-introduced-implement-brexit

    ** number obtained by searching legislation.gov.uk for "EU Exit": 518 UK Statutory Instruments, 41 Scottish SIs, 41 Wales SIs and 5 Northern Ireland Statutory Rules are listed, excluding drafts.

    *** http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/procedure-committee/exiting-the-european-union-scrutiny-of-delegated-legislation/oral/82332.html

    **** https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/LLN-2019-0034

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