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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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  • There is (nearly always) a problem of perception with public response to such rash and controversial enactments of parliamentary chicanery (for want of a better idiom).

    The immediacy of social media and the rolling news agenda, which ironically tends towards fixation and contingent exposition by turn, means that the public and particularly those more vocal in the immediacy of their outcry and claims of foul play, tend to see such actions in isolation and extrapolate a finality of outcome to the instigator's motivations, actual or otherwise.

    Despite the juggernaut nature of Brexit political activity, people do have to continue to lead their lives despite doubt, irresolution and a shrunken view of the future direction of travel politically. A logician or chess player would attempt to see several turns of play ahead and would evaluate the strength, coherence and intent of the short term gambits.

    A Prime Minister who remains on vacation, threatens both closure of future debate and punishment of vocal critics within their own party (despite the thinness of sway within the house if/when it does next sit) is consistently buying themselves time and space for manoeuvre.

    The current party of government has done little to decry the lack of policy traction or manifesto commitment despite it's own shifting chameleon nature. The conservative party appears to have few policy intentions beyond Brexit itself - by whatever salient means available - however the shrinking of government has long term assent and indeed began with Cameron's Big Society platform a decade or so ago.

    Yes, the tools available are blunt and the credibility of argument is wanting yet continued existence seems to be the main thrust of the current narrow call to arms not the direct crushing of dissenting voices.

    My own preference would be for broader, honest and more analytical judgement of the intended destination of the executive, decision making based on empirical evidence and a proper mandate achieved through public consultation but that possibly demands a greater breakdown of conventional process and a truer appreciation of the needs of the electorate as they carry their lives forward.

    A carnival atmosphere and a distorting refraction of oppositional views creates a very shallow field of play.

  • An election is imminent - and with the issues and stakes that have never been higher, we need to encourage everyone and young people in particular to register AND vote. This nation has 46million people eligible to vote.  Since the EU referendum vote nearly 4.8m people have become eligible to vote and just over 1.8m people who were eligible to vote have died since then. Our electorate has changed, dramatically! What mattered in 2016 matters even more now.

    • Everyone who has a right to vote should vote.  It took a long time to get that privilege. Around 800 years of British people suffering the most dire civil unrest and persecution to get this far. I am interested in your statistic re the 1,8 million people who have died.  What do you feel the significance of that to be?  

  • Neatly argued Matthew. I agree about Johnson being seen as big, bad & bold. But for me the real democratic issue is that there is insufficient democracy: Johnson has gone down the pro rogue route because he knows he cannot win Parliament over. The solution is a General Election, which would also become by default a second referendum. The outcome would probably be a hung parliament, which would then force the parties to work together among themselves to gain power.  Then we can move forward, knowing that it is all of our votes that have delivered the outcome. As is usual with democracy, there would be a minority who would still disagree with the Brexit outcome that would result - one of Matthew's 3 options - but at least democracy would take us there.

  • Just a brief note - the UK political system of « first past the post » is largely responsible for some of the problems which have to be faced, to which should be added the immobilism of politicians, whatever their performance, including the method to select a prime minister. 

    The UK political system is basically « undemocratic »  - and this has to be defined! - and it is ironic to note that after nearly three years of discussion, numerous votes, etc.  the curtailing of debate is described as an outrage!  Is there any deal that could bee approved by parliament in the present circumstances? 

  • There was a tongue in cheek saying at one time. "If democracy worked it would not be allowed" . In other words, as long as the masses voted how the powerful in Society wish them to do the delusion of democracy can be kept. We are in the middle of a test case, are we not? 

    • Absolutely.  And it is interesting to see that the powerful are having a struggle to keep a lid on the pan!

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