Despite claims of Britain’s enduring political and constitutional distinctiveness, in the period from 1997 to 2016 the UK in fact modernised its polity by following several strong ‘Europeanisation’ trends. Increasingly, British democracy came to resemble other European liberal democracies in some fundamental ways. Yet now this meta-narrative may be lost following Brexit. Patrick Dunleavy (LSE) explores some implications of the UK’s possible lapse back into rudderless idiosyncrasy.
One of the least appreciated aspects of the 2016 Brexit referendum vote may be the disappearance of a previously influential narrative of what has been happening to British democracy, and of a template for where it will go in the years ahead. The advent of the Labour government under Tony Blair in 1997 sparked a whole series of major constitutional changes. Traditionalist critics (like Anthony King in his book The British Constitution) complained that there was no coherent plan behind Labour’s changes, that ministers had tinkered with a huge range of institutions without being clear what they were trying to achieve.
There is an alternative interpretation, however, namely that from 1997 to 2016 the UK was strongly Europeanising, falling into line with patterns of political development that were (and still are) common to almost all countries across western Europe. The cumulative effect of these changes was to ‘normalise’ and ‘modernise’ UK democracy, moving away from past patterns of British exceptionalism and uniqueness compared with neighbouring states. Table 1 shows some of the most important ‘Europeanising’ trends over these two decades, and asks whether they are likely to continue post-Brexit.
Table 1: Six main ‘Europeanisation’ trends within the UK 1997–2016, and their likely future prospects
Note: For more information, see The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit (edited by Patrick Dunleavy, Alice Park and Ros Taylor)
Can the ‘British political tradition’ provide an alternative modernisation template to the Europeanisation/normalisation pathway after exit from the EU in March 2019? Some critics argue that Brexit, plus the SNP push for Scottish independence, taken together with a prevailing mood of ‘anti-politics’ distrustful of established elites, mean that the Westminster model has never been more contested. Its ‘focus on strong rather than responsive government distances Westminster from citizens’, according to Marsh and colleagues.
Nonetheless, given the history of the UK’s political evolution, it is not out of the question that Brexit leads to a re-emphasis on British exceptionalism, a renewed emphasis on traditional or historical themes in a ‘back to the future’ mode. Echoes of such a position are strongly present amongst Conservative Brexiteers, and powerfully underlie Boris Johnson’s (much misquoted) complaint against May’s Chequers deal, that: ‘We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to [the EU]’. What might be the elements of a resurgence of UK exceptionalism? Some possible pieces are already on the board, including: the 2011 referendum rejection of the alternative vote as a ‘reform’ of plurality rule; the 2017-18 revival of two-party dominance (produced by the successive collapses in support for the Liberal Democrats and UKIP) in England; and the re-creation of some mass membership parties.
Combined with the cultural backlash that Brexit represents, especially if a charismatic leader like Johnson becomes Prime Minister at any stage, it is conceivable that these and other developments may bring the Europeanisation trends above to a juddering halt, so that the UK’s previous ‘exceptionalism’ from European democratic patterns continues indefinitely.
The final scenario is that Europeanisation trends peter out over time, but that the challenges posed by Brexit and some radically new problems (like adapting to digital-era politics and the growth of social media) mean that the UK’s political system stagnates, or deadlocks, or moves randomly from one uncertain situation to another, with no coherent map or narrative of future development. ‘Taking back control’ of economic regulation, trade, immigration and much more is the biggest change in UK governance for half a century. It has already produced enduring crises for the party system, Parliament and the core executive, with uniquely contested governance over critical issues, and a rapidly changing political landscape. There may well be more of the same ahead as the UK lapses into rudderless idiosyncrasy, with no meta-narrative of political or constitutional progress at all.
This post draws on material from a new open access book edited by Patrick Dunleavy, Alice Park and Ros Taylor, The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit (published by LSE Press on 1 November 2018)
This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It first appeared on EUROPP – European Politics and Policy. Featured image credit: Paul Bailey (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics, and Centenary Professor at the University of Canberra. He is the lead editor of The UK’S Changing Democracy (LSE Press, 2018).
If the author did not wish for the UK to be rudderless, why make out as if that is going to happen after Brexit? The meta-narrative as a post-hoc descriptive of Britain during the UK membership in the EEC and EU has not been so much Europeanisation as a rudderless descent into a state of vasselage. If the British are more idiosyncratic than their continental fellow Europeans, they are no less the European for it, but it makes clear that the British had a meta-narrative of their own all along, and moreover, such a meta-narrative does not expire so much as is invigorated and able to develop along its natural trajectory.
Whatever the faults inherent in the British character, the current differences between the British and the EU present some difficulties due to the character of the EU elite in control of EU policy and the one-way acquis nature of the EU federalisation project. The presumption that the EU elite perspective must prevail at all times has, in the minds of many, as has obviously been the intention, created a figment of some considerable imagination about the perceived political realities extant in Europe as a whole. The object of such an exercise on the part of the instigators of this imagined state of affairs is essentially to bend public opinion to the purpose of assisting the railroading recalcitrant member states into submission to EU diktats.
To use meta-narrative as driver with a view to corral European peoples into the EU federalisation fold is, under the circumstances, amateurish, disingenuous and, probably, a sign of desperation on the part of the architects. However, there is another interpretation of meta-narrative not mentioned or alluded to by the author. There are inexorables at work regardless of the mere plan made by men, here at work. The EU project leaders may be trying their best to make their project a success, but apart from the fact that, ultimately, its fulfilment may not be able to be realised, even under ideal circumstances, such elite as is engaged in the furtherance of it cannot be expected to know al there is to know and need be known and understood in order for this project to succeed. Assuming no influence from a God, or some gods, we do know that the basket of forces and energies which have a bearing upon the European political theatre is full of imponderables and influences quite beyond the control of any elite or concatenation of elites on earth. So, what are the EU operatives playing at, seeking to totally discount the differences extant in the European sociopolitical theatre?
This is not about the British being different. It is about a supreme arrogance serving as the basis of the EU federalisation project’s unilateral imperial perspective which, thereby, is quite unable to entertain the legitimacy of varied views from different quarters, let alone the EU elite being able to stomach dissent to the extent of a member state electing to leave the club. As long-standing and deeply-entrenched as the EU elite is, and however much the British ruling elite wishes and endeavours to play along with the execution of the plan to make it impossible for the UK to effectively Leave this club, the fact remains that for the European ruling elite to stymie and punish dissent thus is quite pathetic, puerile and patently counter-productive.
There is more to physics than meets the eye, and in quantum physics no doubt much more to discover. The effect of pulling a piece of rubber to stretch it until it will give no more can be easily understood. It allows for maximum kinetic energy to be stored therein. Britain has ever been a counterweight to continental Europe. To force it closer than it wants to be sets up a store of kinetic energy in the opposite direction. Plain to see, except for a clique of powermongers who believe, and must need believe in order to have change of pulling it off, that they have enough leverage to browbeat or beat into submission any one country, people or a combination of countries and peoples in the EU political theatre objecting to being brought to an effective state of vassalage, whatever the glorious pan-European meta-narrative may be. No, nice try, but no, it won’t come off.
Not all will be lost when the EU collapses like a soufflé or slowly morphes into a more natural state of European cooperative coordination. There is much about the EU project achieved sofar that is valuable and worth keeping. Whatever will stand up to the maelstrom of events to come will be worthy if acceptable to they who have to live with it. Whatever does not prevail or survive was not fit enough to prevail or survive.
Practically all of the pro-EU narrative, meta or otherwise, has been bluff of a very mediocre level. Nowhere near poker bluff. The spruiking has been way overdone. The relentless brainwashing, the propaganda, the nonsense on stilts that has been propagated and disseminated in support of this project has given the operatives strength of purpose only in the sense of false strength in a false purpose, but it has, if anything, been hugely counter-productive. The EU elite poker players have shown all their cards, and threatened with a stick. Now what? What will this elite do when their house of cardsharps falls in on itself? Spit the dummy?
Don’t worry. If we don’t get Brexit I’ll be out on the streets in my Yellow Jacket to demonstrate my affinity with the European Democratic process.