Brexit won’t end well for the political class.
The claims of the Brexiters that exiting the EU would provide an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, create miraculous new opportunities for trade and achieve significant reductions in immigration have long since fallen by the wayside, yet the enthusiasm of Leavers remains largely undiminished. This is because the Leave campaign strategy of exploiting the public’s deep mistrust of politicians really hit home.
Trust in British government was plummeting long before the start of Brexit negotiations. The annual trust barometer produced by PR firm Edelman, published in January, suggested that only 23% of us had trust in government, down from 36% the year before, while only 19% of us trusted politicians to “do what is right”. Less than a third of us trusted the government’s “three Brexiteers”, Boris Johnson (26%), David Davis (24%) and Liam Fox (20%) to “do what is right” in relation to leaving the EU, and yet 87% of respondents who voted to leave were still certain their decision was right.
Ironically, trust in the EU was 27%, perhaps reflecting the unshakable conviction of Remainers, 88% of whom were still sure of their decision. The belief amongst so-called ‘Remoaners’ that the popular press was responsible for turning the heads of the poorly educated is belied by the fact that trust in the media was 24%, down from 36% in 2016. Trust in business fared no better, down from 46% to 33%, while charities and NGOs fell from 50% to 32%. Trust is in short supply in Brexit Britain.
Jeremy Corbyn’s stock (23% in January) improved considerably during the general election but any hope Remainers had of a reinvigorated Labour party reversing the referendum result have subsequently proved groundless. By not opposing Brexit, it is assumed, Corbyn could have the opportunity to apply a statist form of socialism unfettered by EU rules on state subsidies.
Labour MPs represent many of the constituencies that voted most strongly to leave. They might be Remainers at heart but going against the will of their constituents could seriously damage their prospects of re-election, whereas towing the party line might lead to a ministerial appointment in the near future. Conservative MPs represent many of the constituencies in London and the South East that voted most strongly to remain. They might also be Remainers at heart but not towing their party line could lead to a general election they’re likely to lose. The political system rewards politicians for doing what is expedient rather than for doing what is right.
Theresa May (36% in January) gave the appearance of burning her boats when she invoked Article 50 in March. “Brexit means Brexit” implied there was no turning back from whatever Brexit turned out to be. “The vote to leave was democratic”, she insisted, and “democracy must be respected”.
The European Union (by which we mean the European Council, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors) with its five presidents, Jean-Claude Junker (European Commission), Donald Tusk (European Council), Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Eurogroup), Mario Draghi (European Central Bank) and Antonio Tajani (European Parliament), none of whom are elected by the citizens whose interests they notionally represent, is a far less democratic set of institutions even than those of our own government.
Whereas British government is a mixed system comprising elements of monarchy, aristocracy – the House of Lords being nowadays dominated by political placemen and placewomen – and electoral oligarchy – a choice between opposing factions of a political elite that we’re encouraged to think of as ‘democracy’, the EU is primarily a technocratic oligarchy whose workings are opaque to the vast majority of EU citizens. The European Parliament approves legislation but the unelected Council dictates policy and the equally unelected Commission sets the legislative agenda. The austerity imposed upon Greece and the indifference to the constitutional crisis in Catalonia demonstrates that the EU represents the interests of its political elites, which are quite different to the interests of its citizens.
The European Economic Community, the ‘Common Market’ and customs union Britain joined in 1973, was a very different entity from the integrated political project the European Union has become. What was conceived as a democratic single market has evolved into an undemocratic big government that is far removed from ordinary citizens, and there’s the rub. We want the benefits of the former without the liabilities of the latter. EU negotiators, untroubled by the need to seek re-election and holding all the cards apart from the one that leaves a Britain-shaped hole in the EU budget, need to maintain both concepts as indivisible.
Dissatisfaction with the EU is not unique to Britain. Turnout for the 2014 European elections was a paltry 34% in the UK. But turnout averaged only 42% across all 28 member states, 9 of which had a lower turnout than the UK. Only the electorates of Belgium (90%) and Luxembourg (86%), the two founding nations closest to the workings of the EU, were fully engaged. Distance erodes trust in government, and EU government is government imposed upon us by a remote elite. But then so is British government and Western-style representative government everywhere else.
Edelman’s research suggests trust in government is declining across the globe, triggered by fears of corruption, immigration, globalisation, eroding social values and the pace of change. In common with a majority of the French, Italian, Mexican, South African, Spanish, Polish, Brazilian, Columbian, Australian, Irish, Dutch, Canadian, Swedish, Argentinean, Malaysian, Turkish, American, and even the German electorate prior to the ultra-right AfD winning its first seats in the Bundestag, more than 60% of British voters believe the system is failing. There is no positive development anywhere in the world that might reverse this terminal decline.
Those in power are, in fact, caught in a web of powerlessness. Unable to improve our lives in any meaningful way, they obfuscate, manipulate and distort reality to the point where we no longer believe what their experts tell us, nor do we accept the veracity of the media channels that propagate their deceit. Meanwhile, the challenges facing government go unresolved.
Brexit is a case in point. It is a manifestation of a rejection of a political class that, rather than dealing honestly and responsibly with the public’s fears of immigration, terrorism, public health and the tax aversion of big business, seeks to exploit those fears for its own ends. It’s hard to see how trust can be restored post-Brexit without a fundamental change in the way government is conducted. Brexit will be about taking control, but not in the way the Brexiters imagine it.
The referendum was a pyrrhic victory for UKIP, which thereafter lost its raison d’être along with its powerbase in Brussels, and for the Conservative Party, which lost its reputation for competence along with its majority at the general election. The Liberal Democrats made little ground in the general election while the SNP suffered a sharp reversal in fortune, both on the back of pro-EU platforms. With the Conservatives in disarray, Labour might return to power in the near future but it will become accountable in government for the consequences of a Brexit it supported in opposition.
Whatever form it eventually takes, Brexit won’t resolve the fundamental issue facing the political class: the abject failure of an anachronistic and inherently unrepresentative system to cope with the complexities of the modern globalised world, let alone to deal with the domestic crises surrounding social security, wages, housing, the economy, immigration and the NHS. These are relatively simple problems compared to the existential threats and challenges presented to the whole of humanity by climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, migration, conflict, inequality and the loss, within the next 30 years, of one third of all the current jobs in the world to so-called disruptive technologies.
Our system of government was conceived at a time when the available technology meant that the only way to have representation in parliament was to choose a local man to put on a horse to the capital. It persists in an age of instant interconnectivity simply because no viable alternative model of democracy has been offered, until now, and because our only remedy has been to vote every few years to maintain the status quo. We’ve never had a debate about whether the present system is the best we can come up with for administering a country, let alone a continent or a planet.
John Adams, one of the American founding fathers, thought that a democracy’s representative assembly should be ‘an exact portrait of the people at large’. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill thought it should be a place ‘where every interest and shade of opinion in the country can have its cause even passionately pleaded in the face of government’.
It’s abundantly clear that Westminster is no such place, Brussels even less so. While both can be reformed in theory, it is hard to imagine how the latter could be achieved in practice without the entire European political elite agreeing to give up its power, something that is plainly not in its interests to do. But once the British political elite has thrown off the Continental yoke, career politicians will be the only special interest group standing in the way of a more effective and efficient form of government.
Common sense and the majority of expert opinion suggests Britain will be worse off outside the single market and customs union, but leaving the European political project creates an opportunity to rid ourselves of a political system that most of us believe is failing, and replace it with a new model of democracy designed to meet the challenges of the modern world. Getting rid of the Mother of Parliaments would be a chance for Britain to lead the world in the development of participative democracy.
We no longer need elected politicians to represent us in a parliament. Technology allows for government to be decentralised to a linked network of community assemblies. These institutions will be places where decisions on policy and legislation are made on the basis of evidence and life experience by a representative sample of citizens selected by lot (like jury service), rather than by politicians on the basis of dogma or self-interest.
The Ordinary People model of global governance is a viable alternative to the current system. It does away with government by career politicians. It reduces government to a single, linear level, considering the whole of humanity as a community in which other local, regional, national and international communities with both common and diverse interests co-exist. It enables citizens to govern themselves from within their own communities, giving them the means to manage their own economies through the use of complimentary regional currencies, as well as conduct national and international trade through the use of conventional fiat currencies.
Rather than have ever-greater austerity imposed on us from the top down with no end in sight; rather than live in fear of a world that appears to be running out of control; rather than being at the mercy of corporations whose economic power is filling the political void; rather than face a dystopian future in which we lack any sense of security or agency or wellbeing, the Ordinary People model gives citizens the means to govern themselves.
If we don’t trust government or politicians, why continue to vote for more of the same every five years in the hope that somehow things will get better? Why not put our hopes and aspiration in the hands of the people the Edelman survey suggests we do trust: the British people (55%), family (88%) – in short, people like us?
The way to change the system is to beat the political class at its own game. Start a community group in your political constituency. Form a political party-of-convenience – a practical necessity under British electoral law – with groups in other constituencies to campaign together on a platform of system change. Do what political parties do: hold regular meetings, take to social media, talk to neighbours and knock on doors. Choose an able candidate from within your group to stand for election as your MP on condition they pledge to resign from office the moment transition to participative democracy is completed.
If the majority in a British referendum can be persuaded to vote for something as potentially destructive as Brexit, then it’s not unreasonable to imagine that a majority could be persuaded to vote for something as potentially productive as the right to directly participate in government.
Brexit is a chance to take Britain back to the future. In the aftermath of Brexit, the political class will have no defence against a mobilised citizenry whose best interests it has failed to represent. Now that a viable alternative model of democracy exists, Brexit could be what the Leave campaign claimed it would be: a chance to take control.