The pantomime played out at Westminster has destroyed the global image of UK politics, writes Lesley Riddoch.
What is there to look forward to in 2019?
One sunny upside of the final Brexit moment should be the disappearance of thoroughly discredited politicians like Jacob “Irish investment fund” Rees Mogg, Boris “f*** business” Johnson, Priti “starve the Irish” Patel, Dominic “I didn’t understand the full extent of cross-channel trade” Raab, Ruth “I will resign” Davidson and Andrew “Irish passport” Bridgen.
Of course, one voter’s shameless opportunist is another’s canny operator and in the slippery world of British politics it takes more than involvement in crashing the economy, putting the army on alert, depriving patients of life-saving medicines and stockpiling food to trigger the receipt of one’s jotters. The reputation of individual politicians may survive Brexit, but one reputation will not – that of the so-called “Mother of Parliaments.”
Throughout 2018, the weakness, elitism, confrontational nature and ad hoc approach to constitutional change embedded in the Westminster system has helped precipitate the Brexit crisis and then allowed the UK government to grab, abuse and centralise power as it sees fit.
None of your foreign checks and balances here, matey. The British system is special, and absolutely revered abroad.
Well, Brexit has changed all that, judging from some telling BBC interviews with members of the London-based foreign press last week.
According to Stephen Castle of the New York Times; “There was an assumption that Britain as a smart sophisticated country would navigate its way through Brexit.” Evidently - it hasn’t. “When Italians look at Brexit debates in parliament they don’t find it particularly scary or crazy.” That comment by Enrico Franceshini of La Repubblica should be scary in itself. Italy is a working model of chaos with 29 changes of government in the last 25 years. Meanwhile, Stephanie Bolzen of Die Welt observes; “Many Germans watch PMQs and they find it fantastic how people are shouting at one another in such an educated, sophisticated way. That’s why there is bemusement and even irritation at the fact this very parliament is suddenly falling apart.”
Irritation – because Britain was believed to be the “special one,” and educated, sophisticated people across the world fell for that smooth, suave, Etonian lie. But the tenacious trio of Juncker, Merkel and Macron have drawn back the Brexit curtain like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, revealing a tiny coterie of inept, confused politicians trying to run the country in lofty, splendid isolation.
The secret is out.
Once upon a time, in the eyes of admiring foreign journalists and academics, the “Mother of Parliaments” provided the certainty, leadership, command and political focus often missing in the coalition, consensus-based modern democracies of mainland Europe.
Now that illusion of control has gone – leaving nothing to characterise British political life save archaic rules, comedy dress codes, pantomime-like theatricality and an ever-widening democratic deficit between governing and governed which probably prompted the Brexit vote in the first place.
Øivind Bratberg, a senior lecturer at Oslo University, runs the British Politics Society and edits a regular online journal analysing developments here.
Interviewed for the Nation Norway film this summer, he explained that British politics offers the chance to observe behaviour mostly consigned to the history books everywhere else. It’s grimly fascinating to the citizens of modern democracies to watch one person wield so much power; “When something goes wrong in Britain you know who will be up against the wall.” Such a concentration of power (and blame) is less common in modern democracies where PR is the norm (Norway celebrates a century of proportional voting in 1921), decision-making is shared and consensus must be built before big decisions are taken. The Norwegian system produces relatively stable outcomes as a result of patience, politeness and long discussion.
Over here, “stable” isn’t just one half of the emptiest phrase in politics. It has come to mean stagnation.
A quarter of Westminster seats have been held by the same political party since the Second World War because in our first past the post system, the winner takes all and the devil takes the hindmost. The two main political parties still think that’s fair. Elsewhere, the kind of faultlines currently paralysing Labour and the Tories, would have created new political parties with clear purpose and a vestige of integrity. Instead, Britain is stuck with another outdated travesty of democracy – the world’s second largest unelected chamber.
As the late Paddy Ashdown said twenty years ago; “There can be no place in a 21st-century parliament for people with 15th-century titles upholding 19th-century prejudices.” Yet a few years later the outspoken former Lib Dem leader became Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon – so powerful is the habit of preferment and so short-lived the hope of change. Now, Brexit reveals a Britain without respect for international law, as evidenced by widespread Tory contempt for the Irish backstop, contempt for the ECJ ruling that MPs can unilaterally cancel Brexit and contempt for the very idea the UK must pay its “dues” before crashing out of the EU.
In Italy’s La Stampa, Michele Valensise likens Brexit to a poker game, and warns readers that, with all the drama in London, “it is easy to forget about the other contracting party, the 27 EU countries, whose patience has limits.” But living in a Punch and Judy political culture where the media holds coats instead of holding politicians to account, it’s no wonder the Brits underestimate Eurocrats – men and women who don’t scream, grandstand, flounce or threaten. They don’t make headlines, just progress. The majority are born negotiators and conciliators largely because of proportionality in their systems, just as British politicians are born confrontationalists because of first past the post and all that entails.
Former Tory policy advisor and CEO of Brexit Analytics, Garvan Walshe wrote last week; “The desire to seize positions of power and hold them against equally matched enemies is more associated with countries on the descent toward civil war than mature liberal democracies like the United Kingdom.” Well, quite. In his opinion the most probable outcome for “a country with few formal institutions and weak legal oversight of the political process” is simple. “English political chaos will stimulate Scotland to choose independence.”
Brexit has hardly covered the Union with glory. Can Scotland do better as a modern independent state within the EU? In 2019, we must have the chance to choose.