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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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  • I agree the UK democratic process has much to be improved upon. Is not the situation as follows? 


    Her Majesty's Government gave Her Majesty's 'subjects' the opportunity to vote on whether they wish to stay under the control of the EU or leave it. Nothing more and nothing less. 

    The majority who took this opportunity voted to 'leave'. 

    Parliamentary members are selected as candidates for election to Parliament by the leadership of the political parties. Then 'citizens' are asked to vote for these candidates .  

    In Parliament most of the Members voted in are then required to vote how the leadership of the political parties wish them to vote through the operation known as the Whip system

    Members of Parliament therefore represent the leadership of the political parties and not really the people who voted them into Parliament. 

    Many Parliamentary members are trying to subvert the democratic vote of the 2016 EU Referendum of the people on behalf of the leadership of the political parties. 

    Hence the reason why many of these Members are ignoring the majority vote of people they supposed to represent in the 2016 EU Referendum.  

    Proroguing of Parliament by the Queen on behalf of her subjects at the request of  Her Majesty's Privy Council was necessary to help ensure the wishes of her subjects are acted upon by Her Majesty's Government. 


  • The Remainers may be calling to "stop the coup" but the coup occurred when politicians decided to act in their own interests and not in the interests of their constituents. This goes right back to the manifesto pledge of David Cameron to offer the referendum if he won the election, without having a plan in place to deal with it. He was so convinced the population would vote remain, that he was blind sided by the result. Then Theresa May referred to "her deal" continuously which alienated the majority of the voters, which resulted in losing seats in the election which consequently destroyed any credibility or strength for the government to see it through. Then came the biggest coup of all, Jeremy Corbyn using the weak government to attack it on all sides, also without any credible plan to enable Brexit, and with a manifesto that will bring the country to its knees, followed by the divisive behaviour of the parliamentarians we voted in, a total disregard for the will of the people, and serving their own political careers. Parliament now needs to unite and deliver Brexit, or we go to a general election. If an election occurs, there will either be a majority government and we leave the EU or head for a second referendum (if Labour do what they promise)or a divided house once again with no majority, and around we go again. I don't blame the PM for taking the decision to prorogue parliament, it is stopping "the coup" not starting one. 

  • This is a pretty clear and accurate assessment in my view. There have been a number of political blunders of serious proportions recently. Here are four.  An in/out referendum in respect of a decades long complex multi-lateral treaty based on ideology and not rationality was the first. Ignoring the level of blatant dishonesty in the campaigning when strong high-level Ministerial objections and the true facts should have been put before the electorate was the second and Mrs May's ill-advised and wholly unnecessary general election when she had a working majority was the third. Triggering Article 50 as a symbolic gesture rather than part of a strategy has proved to be the fourth and has had dire consequences. Arguing about the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit really is wasting energy as nobody can predict the outcome with certainty, save that it is bound to be detrimental to trade, economic growth and the strength of the pound in at least the medium term. Those declines are already happening and why would they not get worse before standing any hope of getting better?

    This is not the Battle of Britain, but even that historic event would probably have had a different outcome if it had not been for the tenacity and bravery of the Polish fighter squadrons in Fighter Command. That was recognised and documented shortly after the event. It is always a good idea to recognise who your real friends are.


  • A valuable and erudite contribution to the debate, Matthew.  The Brexit Prorogation does call for a serious examination of the British constitution and 'Political Pact'. The RSA was started in the 'Enlightenment' to discuss and contribute to a new wave of interpretations of the 'poloitical pact' to which undoubtedly Ben Franklin contributed the thinking that established the US Constitution.  Lord Radcliffe's1952 Reith Lecture  'The problem of Power' (no 6 - Avialble on BBC I-Player) quotes Rousseau's Social Contract (1767) to establish how the 'General Will' in Society based on the principles 91) each man is the best judge of his own interest, (2) that men are all equal for the purposes of 'society', (3) the greatest happiness of the greatest number, align on divisive issues,  has, through compromise in the political process, to arrive at a tolerable solution for those that oppose the minority.s view: "the proper end of legislation, and indeed of human activity is to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number...it follows that what a majority of these equally wise, self regarding persons (legislators) may happen to want - ought to be the law".  Perhaps our political process is working as has been designed to work in these past 250 years! ?

  • Jacob Love Soper writes, "Theresa May's key tactical failure was triggering Article 50 without a plan for what Britain wanted from the deal. The three options you outline are stark, but they assume that the deal TM put to Parliament is the only deal Britain could get. And that is not true. A longer Brexit negotiation timetable could get Britain a better deal and into a better position to manage the impact of leaving." I agree. 

    Now is the time for sober heads. For the higher the stakes, the more time should be allowed to decide what it is we want in a deal with Europe. We are where we are because the decision to join the European Economic Community more than 40 years ago, was something of 'a rush job'; we must not make the same mistake again. Granted, many will complain that time is of the essence, and that a decision must be made right now. I would answer them by pointing out that there are occasions when the best use of time, is to let it run on. If time flies, that is no reason why we must always fly. More important issues than time are at stake, they include the destiny of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. 

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