The UK’s institutions have, so far, stood up to what can only be considered a sustained assault by the executive.
Over the last three years, it has become fashionable to argue that the whole sorry Brexit saga has made the UK a laughing stock around the world. Government in chaos. A parliament unable to decide which way is up. A country divided straight down the middle. All very messy, unkempt and disorderly.
But messy and disorderly are inherent characteristics of a functioning democracy. Order can only be imposed on the innate entropy of democracy through authoritarianism or unaccountable technocracy.
Brexit is arguably the most important decision facing the UK in decades if not centuries. Contrary to much of the commentary, it’s not just about free-flowing trade and the economy. If it were, few would be so highly exercised by it.
Brexit is about the UK’s fundamental political orientation.
Whether it chooses to live by ‘European’ values, or whether it chooses a different path.
Whether the UK’s best interests are served by political and strategic alignment with a European bloc, or whether it chooses to strike out on its own or align itself with the US as a kind of Associated State.
Whether the UK believes that it has a stake in the future of Europe.
Whether it is wishes to steer the bloc towards being a confederation of independent nation states with mixed economies and democratic accountability.
Or whether it has given up on that dream, believing that statist elements that believe in a centrally-directed European superstate have won out.
It tests how far the UK is willing to go to preserve the hard-won peace on the island of Ireland.
It highlights the challenge of understanding the meaning and limits of national sovereignty in an interconnected world.
Brexit rests on these big, difficult and sometimes abstract issues. It is therefore perfectly understandable, and indeed highly desirable, that different people will reach different conclusions and adopt different positions.
What we have seen over the last three years is British democracy, red in tooth and claw, struggling with these issues. We have a parliament that has repeatedly, and successfully, stood up to the executive. Party whips who have been told to go whistle. MPs standing up for their own convictions irrespective of the views of their leadership – willing to resign the whip or have it withdrawn to hold out for what they believe in.
MPs struggling to find a balance between their own roles as informed decision makers and their role as representatives of the views of their constituents – views that are not homogeneous irrespective of which majority emerged in the referendum.
All of this has been open and transparent. The goings on in the House of Commons have become compelling viewing across the whole of Europe and beyond.
And now our Supreme Court has ruled that the government’s arbitrary suspension of parliament is illegal and therefore void.
The importance of this decision must not be underestimated. Had it gone the other way, it would have implied that any government, of whatever shape or colour, can simply suspend parliamentary democracy at will and for as long as it wishes.
It could rule by sweeping away accountability to parliament. That way lies the road to potential dictatorship – usually under cover of the authoritarians’ favourite phrase – that they, and they alone, represent ‘the will of the people’.
It is time to celebrate that which, superficially, looks like a Brexit-induced chaos. In spite, or maybe because of, the malleability of an uncodified constitution, British democracy has held up. We have not had violence on the streets. We have not had people who disagree with the government’s position thrown in jail. Battles have been fought where, in a mature democracy, they belong – in parliament and in the courts.
To those with an inherently neat mind; to those who prefer sterile efficiency to broad accountability, it may all look scruffy and sometimes shambolic. That is what democracy is.
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