t’s easy to get despondent about the shenanigans at Westminster over the Brexit debate. To see it as a sign of a broken politics.
But is it?
The essence of democracy is robust, maybe even fierce, debate. What kills democracy and political engagement is when politics becomes nothing more than technocratic management.
When viewpoints become so uniform that dullness results. Nothing is questioned; nothing is debated; the fire is extinguished and with it the beating heart of democracy.
None of that can be said about Westminster in the Brexit debate.
With the helping hand of the Speaker, parliament is standing up to the executive. Party whips are being told to go whistle. MPs are standing up for their own convictions irrespective of the views of their leadership on what is the most momentous decision for Britain in decades.
They are struggling to find a balance between their own roles as informed decision makers and their role as representatives of the views of their constituents – which are not homogeneous irrespective of which majority emerged in the referendum.
Those on both sides of the debate have strong convictions. All are trying to balance the difficult issues of less dependence on a supranational institution with the economic impact of a divorce. All are concerned about what is the best balance between remaining within a pan-European grouping in which Britain will retain a voice, if not independent decision making, against a fudge that would leave the country as a rule taker.
All this is a sign of a healthy democracy at work.
As James Miller puts it in ‘Can Democracy Work?’:
“Democracy as furious dissent flourishes as rarely before, in vivid and vehement outbursts of anger at remote elites and shadowy enemies. And these outbursts are essential to the continued vitality, and viability, of modern democracy—even as (and precisely because) they challenge the status quo, destructive though that challenge may be.”
It is easy to buy into the idea that Britain has become a laughing stock. Yes, Britain is dealing with a difficult political situation to which there are no easy answers. But it is dealing with it in the most open, transparent, and democratic way.
Many individuals or groups are doing exactly what they have accused what they call ‘populist’ politicians of doing for years – presenting simple and simplistic solutions to complex problems. “Let’s just leave with no deal, I’m sure it will be OK”. “Let’s just revoke Article 50 and pretend none of this ever happened”. “A second referendum will magically solve everyone’s problems”.
The saving grace is that parliament as a whole will not accept any of these simplistic – or let’s call them ‘populist’ – solutions. The fiery democratic debate continues. Every side has to work hard to persuade.
And, to top it all, the British parliament can do all this in what has become one of the most gripping forms of entertainment across the whole of Europe, and maybe beyond. Which other country could devise a politics that grips a whole continent?
Sometimes, maybe most times, others can see us better than we see ourselves. The Observer published an article (worth reading in full) of some foreign correspondents’ view of the Brexit debate.
The comment that struck me most came from Antonello Guerrera of La Repubblica:
“And yet, now more than ever, Britons should be proud of their parliament and of the mess it has unleashed. Because its political debates are authentic, intense and passionate. Because serious politics, such as dismantling 40 years of links with the EU, is a far slower and more tortuous process. And because in other countries, the parliament does not have the same character or importance: in Italy, for example, there have been brawls, and debates are quashed with votes of confidence; in France the parliament comes a strict second to the Élysée; and in Germany there is just not the same emotion… No one knows how it’s going to end. But, meantime, God save Westminster.”
It is time for Britain to be proud. What seems shambolic is democracy red in tooth and claw.
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Stephen Gwynne says
I agree. Similarly, I think we are also relearning democracy to some extent, especially that decades of technocratic management of EU rules and policy frameworks has rendered the underlying issues and debates democratically superfluous.
Transitioning from a democracy led nation state from a technocratically led member state will mean democratic debate regarding national autonomy and how best to utilise our autonomy in a world in which we are potentially facing climate, ecological and economic disruptions and in a world in which most if not all developed countries can only sustain themselves by capturing, through markets, foreign resources and future reserves of renewable resources.
This means difficult choices regarding how best to create national resilience within European resilience within global resilience and how best to maintain adaptive relations with European and Global flows of people, capital, goods and services.
Resilience theory has a lot to offer in terms of insights and in my opinion is the missing part of the democratic puzzle and the means to bridge contesting points of view.
European Resilience requires systemic diversity and systemic buffers (borders) in order to create redundancy and manage connectivity and National Resilience requires the management of slow variables and feedbacks in order to create greater levels of sufficiency.
In other words, resilience future proofs societies and helps prepare them for a disruptive future.
In many ways, maintaining the status quo of reducing diversity, reducing buffers, reducing sufficiency and increasing connectivity is taking a pathway towards reduced resilience and increasing survival anxieties which I argue is the basis of the Leave vote and the desire to regain national autonomy. From a perspective of national autonomy, European resilience can be built up through increasing national diversity and buffers and national resilience can be built up by being able to better manage slow variables and feedbacks in order to improve sufficiency.
Hence, MPs need to inform themselves of a deeper reality if they wish to make better judgements regarding the many balancing acts which are being currently debated.