It’s a moment almost impossible to imagine, at this point in the Brexit game; but when the dust of this crisis begins to settle, one truth will emerge from the chaos with great clarity – the truth that Britain’s political system is broken, and that at a historic moment when there was a vital need for serious political debate and policy development on the nation’s future, it absolutely failed the people it is supposed to serve.
The long-term causes of this failure run deep, and have been well understood for decades by thinkers like Scotland’s Tom Nairn. The events of the last three years, though, have exposed some particularly florid symptoms of failure; and perhaps the most obvious one has been the utter abandonment of Britain’s 16 million Remain voters by the leadership of both main political parties in the Westminster Parliament. In a two-party adversarial system, any view not embraced by either major party tends to be pushed to the margins; and in the case of the Brexit debate, the brute fact is that a few dozen extreme pro-Brexit MPs on the Tory back benches, and the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, have played a greater role in shaping the outcome than the entire 16 million who voted never to start the process in the first place. This is not to deny that an even greater number – 17 million – voted to leave the EU; but whatever they believed they were voting for in June 2016, their voices, too, have been increasingly hijacked by a bunch of privileged no-deal extremists in parliament, and in some sections of the media.
So what has happened here? In the first place, there is a failure of the two main political parties to provide, between them, a representative balance of popular opinion. The Conservative and Labour parties are the absolute gatekeepers of political power at Westminster, wth only an occasional historic nod towards the Liberal Democrats; and essentially, they are failing at the job. The Conservative Party has around 120,000 members, with an average age of 72; and the UKIP-style opinions embraced by the majority of them often represent a real obstacle to Conservative politicians trying to reach out to a wider and younger membership.
Labour, by contrast, is now bitterly divided between Blairites who support the EU but see no reason to restore the trade union links that once kept the party closely in touch with the lives of millions of working people, and Jeremy Corbyn supporters – now in the ascendant, and forming the vast majority of the party’s half-million members – who tend for ideological reasons, and despite their own views, to defer to a leadership which is historically in favour of leaving the European Union. The result is that the largest coherent minority in a Brexit debate full of minorities – the 16 million who want to Remain – has been largely excluded from public debate, from negotiations and often from media coverage, in what is certainly the most conspicuous failure of political representation in the UK since Britain began to elect its governments through universal suffrage.
If the unrepresentative characters of the two major parties is one feature of the Brexit shambles, though, it has to be said that the first-past-the-post electoral system through which they contest their Westminster seats does not help. To say that Westminster’s winner-takes-all system encourages childishly triumphalist and uncompromising attitudes on the winning side is to understate the case, particularly when – as in the 2017 election – the biggest party emerged only two per cent ahead of the main opposition. Increasingly, given the scale and seriousness of the issues faced by all governments in our time, it compares most unfavourably with the culture of more modern, proportionally elected parliaments like the Scottish one, where – as we saw in this week’s budget negotiation between the Scottish Government and the Greens – even a government in a much stronger electoral position has to master the art of negotiation, and take other views into account.
Add to these shortcomings the dangerous reluctance of both major parties to respect and act on the official findings of the Electoral Commission on criminal breaches of election spending rules by the Leave campaign, an apparent growing indifference at Westminster to the real views and needs of the smaller nations of the Union, and the general increasing vagueness about who our legislators are representing – we don’t talk about bribes or corruption at Westminster, of course, but about consultancies, non-executive directorships, and private contributions to office expenses and committee costs – and you have all the symptoms of a system on the brink of serious failure in the essential business of fairly representing the nation, and at some risk of driving the two pro-EU parts of the Union out of the United Kingdom altogether.
The problem, though, is that there is only one progressive remedy for this kind of crisis of representation, and that is greater citizen involvement in the world of politics, in the running of political parties, and in all the processes by which our power-holders are held to account; and it is no accident that this crisis has emerged at a time when the vast majority of the working-age are experiencing harsher financial pressures than at any time in two generations, and are simply far too time-poor to invest time in making democracy work, even if they wanted to.
For in the end, it is extremely difficult to sustain a successful democratic culture in a hyper-individualistic society where many people have long since ceased to see society’s wider political debate as having anything to do with their lives. And one of the few possible positive outcomes of Britain’s Brexit crisis is that it may come as a sharp reminder that politics sometimes matters, after all; not to those so cushioned by wealth and privilege that, for them, politics will always remain a game, but to those who now stand to suffer – perhaps for decades to come – the consequences of believing for too long that politics is irrelevant to our lives, and that if we just leave it to the strange tribes of Westminster, then nothing serious can really go wrong.