Brexit, or how not to do democracy

It’s crunch time in Brexit-land, with the clock rapidly running down towards 29 March, the date on which Britain is supposed to leave the European Union. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see any way in which an agreed method of doing that could be in place by then.

This week’s progress consists of the approval by the British cabinet of prime minister Theresa May’s draft agreement, at the cost of another two high-profile resignations (and possibly more to come). But at least there’s a deal that the other EU leaders are likely to sign off on.

The problem, however, is in London, not Brussels. The chance of getting this agreement – or any plausible alternative – through the House of Commons is vanishingly small.

And don’t take my word for it. Thanks to the Guardian, you can have a try yourself at trying to put together a Commons majority. You’ll find it’s not easy. The paper’s own estimates of how groups will vote produce a crushing majority against the government, 415 to 224.

I moved the “Wavering Brexiters” to the “yes” lobby (on the theory that they’ll be willing to swallow their objections to avoid a Labour government), plus the Democratic Unionist Party (on the theory that they’ll want to preserve their position of power by avoiding a fresh election), and still got a very clear vote against the deal, 340 to 299.

So if that’s the government’s best case, it’s in a bad way. Moreover, this isn’t some startling new revelation. It’s been obvious for a year now that only a miracle could clear this key obstacle. As I said in September, “While there may perhaps be a Commons majority for Brexit in the abstract (although even that is far from certain), there is no way to put together a majority for any particular Brexit plan.”

But no-one knows what will happen when the Commons votes no to May’s deal. Indeed, there’s no certainty that her own party will let her survive that long. Even if the EU agrees to reopen negotiations, that would simply delay the inevitable: a fresh agreement might produce a slightly different hostile majority, but it will be just as hostile.

Yet anything else looks like political suicide. May could announce that there will be a no-deal Brexit (daring her opponents to bring on a no-confidence motion), or she could resign, or ask for a new election. Each option is likely to lead to a Labour government.

And of course that doesn’t solve the problem either, since Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues seem equally clueless on the subject of Brexit, unwilling or unable to set out an alternative vision – or even to promise a second referendum that might allow the electorate to sort it out.

Some will take the whole saga as proof that referenda and parliamentary government are not compatible, and that it was a mistake to consult voters directly in the first place.

I’m not convinced of that. I think a referendum can still be a useful option in a parliamentary system, but it works best when the issues involved are relatively clear-cut. Conversely, it works badly when you have an issue that looks simple on the surface, but actually conceals a minefield of complexities.

Australia has experience of this over the last 20 years with our debate on moving to a republic. A referendum in 1999, put (like Brexit) by a government that was mostly against the idea, was defeated, apparently on the basis of its detail – polls showed that the majority was supportive of a republic in principle.

But of course you can’t just add a “principle” to your constitution; there have to be specific words. The Labor opposition took from this the moral – correctly, in my view – that there should be a two-stage process. First a vote in principle on whether to move to a republic; then, if that was approved, a process of drafting and consultation to produce a detailed proposal that could be put to a second, binding, referendum.

Labor took that policy to an election in 2001, but it lost (although for other reasons), and the issue has made only periodic appearances since. Bill Shorten, who seems set to become prime minister next year, renewed the promise last week, although polls show that a referendum would probably be defeated.

This, however, is how Brexit could have been dealt with. First, an in-principle referendum on whether or not to leave the EU; then, if “leave” won, a period of negotiation to settle on an actual deal for leaving, which would be subject to approval in a second referendum.

In Australia, the two-stage process is mostly opposed by opponents of a republic; they describe the in-principle vote as “giving a blank cheque” to the republicans. But in Britain, of course, it’s the Brexiters who are most opposed to having a second vote, arguing that it means subverting the will of the people as expressed in 2016.

That claim depends on the assumption that a vote to leave has to be construed as a vote to leave on any terms at all. But there’s no basis for that assumption; on the contrary, it can be safely assumed that a fair proportion of those who voted “leave” would still have felt that some possible terms would be so bad that staying in would be preferable.

Given that only 51.9% voted “leave” at all, the idea that there is majority support for the sort of “no-deal” Brexit that the country is now headed for seems far-fetched. But of course without another referendum, we can’t really be sure.


7 thoughts on “Brexit, or how not to do democracy

  1. The obvious conclusion is that Britain needs to get rid of its Complicated System of Proportional Alternative Representation Voting and adopt first-past-the-post, which will ensure firm majorities and decisive results based on the will of the people as expressed at the ballot-box. – Oh. Wait…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The whole clusterfk has become unbelievably tedious. That is, to those of us not directly affected. Even more tedious are the Brexiteer bloggers who are in total denial of what it means and what is happening. It has reached the same point as with climate denialists–there is no longer any point engaging with them.

    But reading some of the incredible personal invective aimed at May the past few days, it makes me wonder if they haven’t gone too far, and that some sympathy might be headed her way, if she sticks it out and survives (and who the heck is there to replace her that represents an improvement?). Also remember that if they call a confidence vote and she survives (ask yourself, do the Tories really want to go to an election on this) then the rules probably cement the current situation for another 12 months. The Guardianistas and the loons of the Conservative Brexiteers (Rees-Mogg et al) are united in their scorn for her. And Labour. But where are the alternatives, or any viable approach? Rees-Mogg is so confident in a sunny free-trading Britain in a no-deal Brexit that he quietly moved most of his wealth (from investment banking) offshore! He’s possibly already made a ForEx gain on paper of 20+% so, you know, “clever” in a contemptible hypocritical way. Boris the buffoon is being uncharacteristically quiet, possibly because he knows his mouth is his own worst enemy and he might imagine he is achingly close to becoming PM … or he knows that no one in their right mind would want to take charge at this point and thus own this disaster.


    1. Yes, I suspect the numbers are not there at the moment in the Tory Party to bring down May. But assuming parliament votes down the EU agreement, then what happens? Can she really survive a no-deal Brexit? But what other options does she have?


      1. May’s survival is hardly the main issue anymore. The question is what (policies/positions) or who takes her place, and even if, with 4 months to go, it matters. One has always suspected that May is there as a fall-guy. That creeps like Rees-Mogg and the “clever” money on Brexit have always wanted a no-deal Brexit so they can be free of EU rules and then install (reinstate) a kind of austerity Britain run from a few City ivory towers that would take them back to those good-ol, bad-ol medieval glory days. R-M is not called the Member for the 18th century for nothing! (This is what you get when you take the privileged offspring–father was editor of The Times forever–combine with a life lived entirely inside a bubble–elite private school followed by Oxford then “jobs” only available to same so as to perpetuate the wealth and privilege–that they actually believe it all, that it is their natural right.) Boris has not-dissimilar background as R-M but is pure ambitious buffoon who doesn’t care a jot about nation, and yet may also now fall into the same group as R-M in thinking a crash-out no-deal is “best” and to let May take the shitstorm that will result. He’s probably calculating at which point he can step in but avoid most of the storm.
        There are a bunch of Labour MPs who are considering an entirely different Leave program: leaving a Corbyn-led Labour party almost whatever he does.

        Most of the journalism coverage has resorted to satire and surrealist despair:

        John Crace, Guardian.
        The drugs still aren’t working. Or if they are, then Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have been given the wrong prescriptions. Both party leaders appeared on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday politics show to make sense of the current state of the Brexit negotiations, and both departed with their credibility further diminished. Far from each having a vision for the future, they looked as if they would be lucky to find a way out of the building. Even with the exit signs clearly marked.

        The thing is, that these comments apply to the voting public equally or even more so. I’ve got to say that this has been my over-riding impression of the Brits since I first lived there in 1980, Thatcher’s second year (and Ronnie’s first; what a year!). I know one can say this about most nation’s voters and perhaps mine is a reaction borne out of excessive expectation (mother of all parliaments, greatest empire evah, blah, blah) but after 40 years I do believe its true. This is why they are in this mess and why there is no one proposing a way out, and why it doesn’t matter who the PM is because no one is willing to grapple with real issues.


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