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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.

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