Without well-informed, active citizens who value democracy, no positive outcome to the current Brexit-driven political crisis is possible, writes Joyce McMillan.
How are you coping, in these days of crisis at Westminster? Are you furious, energised, out demonstrating to “stop the coup”? Are you sitting back with popcorn, enjoying the spectacle? Or are you just getting on with your life, and hoping that one day soon, all this Brexit-related sound, fury and uncertainty will somehow go away?
At the level of social media, this sounds like a mere lifestyle question; how was your day, and which box-set are you watching tonight – or is the Parliament Channel briefly more entertaining? Yet in a crisis like the current one, it’s also a profoundly political question; and the tone of our response to it matters, no matter how well-cushioned we may feel by 21st century domestic comforts. Talk of a “coup” in the United Kingdom may be unhelpful, in the sense that no actual coup has taken place. Yet come next week, when the Westminster Parliament is prorogued until mid-October, and Boris Johnson’s Government – if it is still in place – has free rein to dominate the media with its interpretation of events, British politics will be in uncharted waters; and in a situation that should alert all UK citizens to a moment of danger, so far as their democratic rights are concerned.
The first alarm-call, paradoxically, is the sound of a Government that places such exceptional reliance on a single plebiscite, carried out three years ago, as the main authority for its central policy. That the 2016 EU referendum was poorly conducted and regulated, to the point of serious illegal conduct, has already been established. Yet even if we leave those questions aside, the fact is that in a parliamentary democracy, no referendum defined in law as advisory, and achieving a vote for radical constitutional change by such a narrow margin, should ever be accorded the authority which the Johnson-Mogg faction in the Conservative Party has now chosen to give it. Their talk of the “the will of the people” – and their demonising of opponents of Brexit as collaborators or even “enemies” – is inflammatory, divisive and plain inaccurate. The only thing that is clear about the will of the British people in this matter is that it is deeply divided; and whatever their views on Brexit, voters should always beware of politicians who use such divisive and totalitarian language.
Then secondly, there is the rise and rise of the “big lie” in British politics, often – although not always – promulgated via social media; and in particular the huge gap that now exists between the role of social media in millions of lives, and regulatory frameworks which were created for a pre-internet age. Essentially, the EU referendum was won for the Leave campaign at the moment when Dominic Cummings realised that he could fill the Facebook news feeds of certain targeted voters with a crash diet of absolute lies about the EU, without breaking the law; and until legislation catches up with that kind of practice, every citizen has reason to be worried about the newly enhanced role of sheer disinformation, and outright lies financed by wealthy vested interests, in shaping public opinion.
And then finally, there is the matter of the five-week prorogation of parliament, at a time of such profound political crisis. That Boris Johnson’s cunning move breaches no law may be technically true. But that the prorogation represents a gross breach of normal practice is undeniable; and the attempt to set people against parliament – to enhance executive power, and silence the elected dissenting voices that have been heard to such powerful effect over the last few days – is a classic mark of would-be authoritarian government. Add to all this the present Government’s obvious contempt for the non-Brexit-voting parts of the Union, and their absolute lack of interest in any concept of Britain other than as a highly centralised unitary state, and you have a political moment that should have every self-respecting citizen on the alert.
The question, though, is whether Britain is any longer – or ever was – a nation of self-respecting citizens; or predominantly just a kingdom of self-absorbed couch-potatoes, happy to be blagged into tolerating the latest self-harming scam dreamed up for them by their celebrity masters. In the last few days, English political culture has been showing some perky signs of resistance, with the high drama of demonstrations on the streets, fine speeches in parliament, and open warfare in the Conservative Party; Scotland, meanwhile, has been pursuing its own more reserved notion of civic resistance, debating a broadly rational programme for government, and taking to the Court of Session to find out whether the relevant parts of Britain’s ramshackle constitution are in any way justiciable through the courts.
Yet if nothing else, the sudden Balmoral prorogation – denied until the last possible minute by a militantly mendacious Downing Street – came as a reminder of how fragile Britain’s democracy is; a veneer of universal suffrage, and electoral custom and practice, laid over underlying structures that remain profoundly monarchical, and arranged around royal prerogatives routinely exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. It may be that the Brexit crisis has finally exposed and broken this old gentleman’s agreement on how politics should be conducted; it may be that reactions to this crisis are so profoundly different – north and south of the Border, and east and west of the Irish Sea – that the UK itself cannot survive.
What’s clear, though, is that without the engagement of an active, well-informed citizenry who value their democratic institutions, their fundamental right to be heard, and the need to respect the rights of others, no positive outcome is possible, in England, in Scotland, or in the UK as a whole. And that while politicians, parties and institutions are all being tested this week, perhaps the most important test of all is the quiet self-interrogation taking place in millions of homes – the question of how much we feel involved in this debate about our future, how much we care to know about it, and what we are prepared to do to influence decisions that may shape our lives and those of our children, for decades to come.