Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 16 April 2018

How Brexit threatens pluralist democracy in the UK


A pluralistic democracy is a democracy with many centres of power. Typically that involves an executive (the government) and parliament, central and local government, an independent judiciary and an independent press. Countries differ in how pluralist they are: the UK has a more permanent civil service than the US but its second house of parliament does not have equal power to the first.

Plurality is embodied in conventions as well as institutions. In a two party system the other side is respected as embodying the wishes of part of the population, and there may on occasion be cooperation between politicians on different sides over certain issues. In addition plurality itself is respected: the government does not normally contest the power of parliament and the judiciary, for example.

Although there was room for improvement before Brexit (power was pretty centralised), the UK was a pluralist democracy. This post is about how Brexit has begun to threaten that. It began with how the Prime Minister, encouraged by a section of her party and a large section of the press, interpreted the referendum result. The country was almost equally divided. That should have meant that the form of Brexit should have tried to take account of the fact that almost half of those voting wanted to stay in the EU. Instead the Prime Minister chose a form of Brexit that appealed to a clear minority of parliament.

Perhaps partly because of this (but I suspect also because of her temperament), Theresa May chose to marginalise parliament as much as she could. She didn’t want it to vote on whether Article 50 should be invoked. That battle went to the supreme court, and she lost. The press that had played such a crucial part in getting a majority for Brexit called the judges ‘enemies of the people’ or similar. If judges had hoped for some defence of an independent judiciary from the government they were disappointed.

However the executive did not only aim to take power away from parliament on this one decision. In the bill that transfer EU laws to the UK, various Henry VIII clauses were inserted which gave the executive the power to ignore parliament. The opposition voted against these clauses, and eventually May was forced to retreat when some Conservative MPs rebelled. These rebels have been branded saboteurs on the front pages of the right wing press. As of now it remains the case that MPs will not be given a meaningful vote on the terms of the final Brexit deal: if they vote against the government says it will leave with no deal.

The government has also done its best to try and conceal the analysis the civil service has done on different forms of Brexit, and ministers have lied to parliament and the public in the process. The Prime Minister and ministers seem happy to lie to the public about the imaginary Brexit dividend, and the broadcast media fails to question these lies. Ministers appear to have no qualms in calling the leader of the opposition a traitor based of fanciful stories in the right wing press.

Is there something inherent in Brexit that has brought about these attacks on pluralistic democracy? To an extent I think there is. Brexit is a fantasy project that will actually do the economy harm, and as I argued here when politicians attempt to conceal the truth from the public they tend to become more authoritarian. As the dreams of some Brexiters fall apart on the rocks of the EU negotiations and the Irish border, no doubt similar attempts will be made to conceal that truth from the public as well.

However I think there are two other factors linked to Brexit that have helped this form of populism emerge in the UK. The first is the character of Theresa May herself. She shows a disregard for people that I cannot remember in previous Prime Ministers. The current excesses of the Home Office with respect to immigrants who have lived here for decades is a direct result of her ‘hostile environment’ policy, which she seems happy to continue. She took the decision to ignore the wishes of the 48%, and she also decided to use EU migrants in this country as bargaining chips in the negotiations. The government seems largely indifferent to the increase in attacks on immigrants since the Brexit vote. Her focus seems entirely on keeping her party together, whatever the collateral damage in terms of broken individual lives.

The second factor is the right wing press. In other countries we have seen the dangers of the state (or head of government) controlling large parts of the media. The same problem arises with Brexit. At its best the press can expose government failure and corruption, but at its worst it just acts in its owners self-interest. When those interests happen to be aligned with the interest of the government then the press acts as the state's propaganda arm. It has been the right wing’s press that has banged the ‘will of the people’ drum, which is classic populist (as in anti-pluralist) trope. The situation has been made much worse by the BBC’s apparent indifference to negative news about Brexit: its lack of interest in the Cambridge Analytica link to referendum overspending allegations is deeply worrying.

Understanding why we have seen attacks against pluralist democracy in the UK helps answer the question of how permanent these threats might be. Parliament is to some extent fighting back at the attempts by the executive to reduce its power. If Brexit is neutralised as an issue, the force behind attacks on pluralistic democracy disappears, unless of course it is replaced by something else. However Theresa May could remain as Prime Minister for a lot longer than people imagined after the election of 2017 [1]. The right wing press will still be with us, with their message amplified by the BBC. The situation in the UK is not as bad as it is in the US, where the entire Republican party seems to have given up on pluralistic democracy, but that is cold comfort for a country that often boasts of its democratic heritage.

[1] That includes myself. When I wrote about the Conservative zugswang, I actually underestimated the bind the Conservatives were in. I confidently said “The Conservatives will not fight another election with May as their leader.” That is now less clear. As long as Brexit remains a live issue, which it will do until the end of 2020 at least, the majority of Conservative MPs dare not replace May because the party could elect someone like Rees-Mogg to take her place.



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