Opponents of Brexit cannot afford to lick their wounds for long. The UK now enters a contest for the soul of its democracy. It must now be reconstituted. Such a renewal might one day presage the UK’s return to Europe, writes Michael Cottakis (89 Initiative).
Earlier this month, European Parliament Brexit Coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, visited the UK to meet with senior British officials. His purpose was to discuss post-Brexit citizens’ rights. With a degree of optimism, Verhofstadt sought also to broach the feasibility of an opt-in to EU citizenship after Brexit.
Alas, for defeated Remainers, the Government will not accept Verhofstadt’s proposals. The single greatest loss of civic rights is now in store. Indeed, the 31 January might one day merit recognition as the Great Loss of Rights – for millions of citizens (and entire countries) have now been stripped of their EU citizenship, against their will.
For the defeated mass movement to Remain, it is easy to feel that the war has been lost and continued struggle is futile. It is true that rejoining the European Union in the medium term represents a pipedream. Yet, it bears remembering that Brexit is part of a larger contest, to be waged over years, and around issues far deeper than mere membership of the European Union. Opponents of Brexit, or simply the direction the UK is now drifting in, cannot afford to lick their wounds for long. The UK now enters a contest for the soul of its democracy. Will it be inclusive or extractive? Tolerant or bigoted? Liberal or illiberal? Will it continue to privilege some over others, or can it be a beacon of equal opportunity between peoples? Addressing the paradoxes of the UK’s democratic identity will determine the country’s long-term international orientation, for a society reflects outwardly what it is on the inside. To this contest might the remnants of Remain now turn their attention and direct their hope.
Should liberal progressives lose the wider contest, not only will the UK be permanently shorn from its European home, but it will find itself in the abyss of a new dark age of moral decline, illiberalism, and isolation. Should the UK’s liberal forces win through, all becomes possible again. Under such circumstances, Britain may well re-accede to the European Union within a decade or more.
It appears obvious that reform of the UK’s democratic institutions will not happen with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. But democratic awakenings often occur in direct affront to authoritarianism and immovability. Through the melding together of pro-democracy social movements, the UK’s democratic institutions may yet be infused with new vitality, making these fit for purpose.
Several changes are necessary. First, the norms underpinning UK democracy must turn from ones of centralisation and exclusion to increasing regional autonomy, civic responsibility, and participation. Civic institutions permitting more direct involvement of citizens in decision-making are wholly necessary to improve legitimacy. A written constitution will prevent Prime Ministers, or Speakers, from riding roughshod over democratic norms. At its core, this should contain a new democratic settlement for the UK, forcing the major parties to blur their lines and become less adversarial.
The benefits and drawbacks of these reforms are oft-discussed and beyond the scope of this particular article. Instead, it focuses on several ‘hows’.
The assembly movement
Citizen assemblies have been tested in countries like Canada or Ireland, where the government is less centralised and citizen participation more historically embedded. At its core, the citizen assembly provides a forum for structured debate on local civic and political issues. It embodies the deliberative function of a local council or parliament. However, while a parliament is elected, a citizen assembly is comprised of randomly-selected citizens who serve for a designated period. Assemblies work to advise, to legitimise, or to inform government policy.
While the UK’s well-known centralism and top-down decision-making processes are a firm feature of its democratic landscape, there is historical precedent for the use of similar popular initiatives. From Simon de Montfort to Emmeline Pankhurst, different variations have helped empower local communities and create demand-side pressure for constitutional reform, in defiance of an overbearing executive.
Learning from the Brexit debacle, a new assembly movement should immediately be advanced, mushrooming organically across the UK. This should be broad and decentralised, built through synergies between existing pro-democracy groups. The aim could be for a specified twenty or more assemblies in 2020, with more year-on-year. To achieve this, collaboration between local authorities and assembly organisers is critical. To ensure legitimacy, assemblies could be composed of equal numbers of Leavers and Remainers. Such a method would have the additional effect of bringing communities back together after three acridly adversarial years. The eventual vision might be for citizen assemblies established within each council. These could feed into a parliamentary ‘House of Citizens’, performing a similar function to the House of Lords.
Crowdsourcing a written constitution
The first function of citizen assemblies would be to debate a UK written constitution. All major parties bar the Conservatives now favour this. Opposition party leaders must, therefore, endorse and legitimise the assembly movement, harnessing it to crowdsource a written constitution in time for the 2024 election, when each major party should make its passage into law, via a referendum, a central manifesto promise. This process could be buttressed by a UK wide crowdsourcing campaign, similar to the more limited attempts of the London School of Economics in 2015.
This proposal is neither radical, nor new. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, all major political parties, except the Conservatives, supported ‘a citizen-led constitutional process’, resulting in a written constitution. These demands should now be rekindled. A written constitution would set into law a new democratic architecture more conducive to the 21st century, including the role of the executive, citizen assemblies, and electoral law. It would also devote special attention to questions of devolution, seeking proportionate buy-in from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Through a written constitution, the future territorial integrity of the UK might be safeguarded through the involvement of all devolved administrations.
A new electoral settlement
Crucially, a written constitution must include a broad new electoral settlement. Presently, the Conservatives look set to be the country’s largest party for at least the coming decade. Both major parties have long rejected electoral reform, including calls for proportional representation. However, PR now represents the Labour Party’s best chance of government. Indeed, it represents the only hope for several smaller parties – the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and others – of obtaining a significant parliamentary presence. All have been long-time advocates, and while the British public have traditionally been ambivalent, indications are that this may be changing. A recent poll shows that 56% may now back proportional representation. While PR would constrain the executive to some degree, it would force parties to seek far more accommodating solutions. Simply put, under PR a hard Brexit of the type facing the UK in 2020 would never be on the cards.
With just over four years to the next elections, Labour officials might take heed. A party seeking to ape Conservative populism on Europe and immigration simply to win back its traditional Northern seats would prove catastrophic for British democracy. Instead, Labour’s strategy must be to include a new democratic settlement as its central manifesto promise. It might frame this as empowering the vulnerable working-class voter against the Tories. It must also show itself willing to cooperate with other parties, for without such cooperation, it cannot attain government.
Winning the battle for the soul of British democracy will not do away with the bigotry, illiberalism, and social conservatism of certain strata of society. Nonetheless, it would help contain these forces and nudge the country in a direction we can be prouder of. A United Kingdom based on the principles of greater democratic inclusion, representation, justice, and regional empowerment will be a country more comfortable with itself and with the fast-changing world around it. This will carry benefits in terms of social development and economic performance. Perhaps, ultimately, a UK built in this mould might choose to plough a different furrow in its international relations.
Today the UK prepares for a hard Brexit by the end of 2020 – at odds with public opinion and the national interest. For all its pomp and grandeur, British democracy has been exposed as weary and ailing. It must now be reconstituted. With polls on the eve of Brexit continuing to show clear support for remaining in the EU, for some, the hope is that such a renewal might one day presage a return to Europe.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. Image by Magnus Hagdorn, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Remoaners would vote for labour leader mickey mouse if it had a chance of the UK going into the EU.
Nothing is going to happen for at least 2 decades, and the EU will be dead and buried or a husk by then.
I didn’t need to see graphs, charts, and mountains of reports and analysis to know this would be the result 3 years ago.
Par contre, remoaners wasting 3 years of time is unpardonable and a hugevwaste of time and huge waste billions of £.
Time to put your backs into the UK or leave.
I hear france is good at this moment, and spain is lovely.
Maybe a career in poland, or lithuania is more to your taste?
Brexit is the tip of the iecberg. As a somewhat greater mind than Jason’s commented 3 years ago, Brexit is about regime change. The Atlas Network, Tufton Street right wing think tanks, and the predominantly right wing media which have been telling lies about the EU for 3 decades, have combined to bring us to this point. Jason is too busy throwing brickbats at people who disagree with his politics to understand or appreciate that Johnson’s government represents a threat to our constitution, the separation of powers, the judiciary, and now those members of the press or business groups who will not toe the Johnson line. Autocracy means secrecy, silencing debate and preventing critical review. And that is what we are witnessing. That is why electoral reform, a written constitution, and citizens assemblies are so important.
Healing the division between Remainers and Leavers cannot be achieved by the UK pursuing the hardest possible Brexit. Michael hits the nail on the head. If the public doesn’t wake up to what is happening and why it matters, we will soon be in a very dark place indeed.
Jason should visit France, Spain, Poland and Lithuania. Travel broadens the mind. His mind needs broadening.
So having failed to overturn the result of the last referendum, the Remainers are now turning their attention to the one before that. I voted against a first-past-the-post-democracy in 2011, but 70% of the electorate voted in favour and I have accepted their democratic choice.
This is all too transparent. The Remainers were only too happy to see the first-past-the-post system deter people from voting UKIP in 2015 and none of them were too concerned about democracy when UKIP received just one seat from 12% of the vote.
The bottom line is that under a PR system we would have held a referendum and left the EU a lot earlier.
No doubt the Rejoiners are frustrated by the obstacles that they face in our current system of democracy but they lack the credibility to complain now.
I have done enough travelling and migrating in the EU in my 23 years there- in fact i was ‘EU27’ when thatcher was prime minister, before the EU, before the EURO and working- not sitting in a college writing notes or a gap yah.
Im fact, i had done from the bottom up- student jobs, manufacturing, aerospace, offshore manufacturing all in my 18 years in a major EU capital city, then a few years in Switzerland, as i had seen the damage the EU and the euro had inflicted on the normal working people. My few years in switzerland was eye opening working in prestigeous blue chip companies-American technical and swiss pharmaceutics at their HQ’s all that from nothing 23 years prior. Spain, portugal, italy, greece were all countries i stayed in for a short while whilst “EU27” and in several cases were ones i had considered the move to- but the reality of it , even being perfectly bilingual ( i managed that and get hired over the local competition for employment in 5 years) was a risk not worth taking.
start a company in EU. been there, done that- and i indeed will be smug when i see the sour faces of Pro EU companies that decide ‘delocalisation to france’ for will difficult at worst-
Now residing in Australia for 4 years, japan 1 year (once again mind opening) i feel the times are definately getting better for the UK, and no matter how much rewhining goes on they will have to knuckle down, stop wasting time, and put their backs into it.
my 28 years living and working overseas in 4 countries is enough thank you.
i have 4 social security numbers.
how many do YOU have?
For the last four years, Remainers have kept up a barrage of insults towards Leavers – racist, xenophobic, insular, nostalgic for empire, anti-democratic, old, fascist, dim – and this has been fuelled by their own bigoted imaginations, not from observable reality. The following extract from his essay makes my point eloquently.
“Winning the battle for the soul of British democracy will not do away with the bigotry, illiberalism, and social conservatism of certain strata of society. Nonetheless, it would help contain these forces and nudge the country in a direction we can be prouder of. A United Kingdom based on the principles of greater democratic inclusion, representation, justice, and regional empowerment will be a country more comfortable with itself and with the fast-changing world around it.”
For his information, our democracy is working just fine. Two months ago, we had a general election, in which one party which is riddled with anti-Semitism was beaten out of sight, and other which proposed to ignore the referendum result was thrown back to the margins of our political life.
If he wants to participate in our ongoing ‘national conversation’, I suggest he should think in terms of apologising to the British people for seeking to sabotage the referendum result (which is how most of Britain sees the ultra-Remainers). A certain amount of introspection about how he and his friends came to misunderstand their opponents would not go amiss either.
Talk of war between opposing sides regarding eu membership is not helpful.
There are many erstwhile fans of EEC membership who find the eu, as presently constituted, distasteful.
A crony of the eu commission president manoeuvred into the eu’s most senior ‘fonctionnaire’ position; eu secretary general. That is a clear corruption of process, as the eu parliament itself pointed out.
The eu accounts qualified every year for twenty years. If the eu was a company, investors would have fled years ago.
The eu judiciary politicised and partial; ever closer union their only guiding star.
The eu’s only democratically accountable institution, the eu parliament, merely a rubber stamp; impotent; incapable of intervention to correct the abuses of power listed above.
It is not this country’s democracy, devolution in progress; vibrant; parliament and the country having had over three years of debate on eu membership, that looks to be in need of reform.
Let us not forget that it is the eu, refusing radical reform itself, that set this country on the path to exit.
If the eu reforms itself, properly, I see no reason why this country would not rejoin.
But the sad truth of the matter is that the eu, a bureaucratic, sclerotic, imperial ‘ancien regime’, cannot and will never reform itself in any meaningful way.
This country had the chance to show a lead to the rest of Europe, and, once more, democratically, we took it.
An excellent article and as a stronger Remainer, I entirely agree with the author’s main premise – a deep reform of the British democracy. Therefore, I am really pleased that Brexit has happened. Surprised? Here is an explanation.
Firstly, if we did not have Brexit, there would have been hardly any pressure to fundamentally restructure our democracy including having a written Constitution and, crucially, a new settlement between the four nations. The latter one must now include, a much deeper level of devolution, so that the new constituent parts like London, Yorkshire, Kent, Cumbria, etc, would have roughly an equal political and economic strength in a new Federation of the British Isles. Such general intent by all political parties would immediately stop the tendencies to rip the UK apart by creating independent states of Scotland, Anglia or Wales, with N. Ireland almost obviously re-integrated with the Republic of Ireland.
A new Constitution should deal with the aspect of the new constituent parts of the United Kingdom, including the role of the Monarch, the electoral system, Citizens Assemblies, and other elements of a new democratic contract with the British people, as the author suggests.
To all those that think it will take decades before it can materialize, I would suggest to consider just one thing: change is no longer happening at a linear pace, it is almost exponential in all walks of life, not just in technology, although it has been the result of an incredibly fast technological progress.
Secondly, and here I agree with the Brexiteers that have commented on this article, the EU needs really deep reforms. For example, the selection of the President of the EU Commission last year did indeed lack transparency although on the surface it did not break the legality of the process. The way that the EU democracy works following the Lisbon Treaty, results from what was possible to achieve when the Treaty was ratified. Politics is a very messy business and as they say, it is an art of achieving what is possible and not what should be done at the movement of making a decision. We know how difficult it is to achieve an agreement in our own Parliament. Now take into account the interests of 27 countries that have to be somehow aligned in order for the whole EU to exist at all.
And exist it must, not so much for commercial reasons, as the Brexiteers always remind us and the Remainers rarely contest it. Yes, trade has so far been the driving force of the EU raison d’etre, and the carrot behind the integration process, with almost no stick as an alternative. But the main rationale for the EU’s existence has been the maintenance of peace in Europe and fighting more effectively various existential risks that we are being exposed to, such as climate change, or the danger of creating a malicious Superintelligence.
However, the Brussels’ political village, similar to our Westminster village, a true coterie of interests, can no longer drag its feet and procrastinate efforts such as those by the European loner – President Macron, to make some fundamental reforms in the EU constitution. That means, putting it bluntly, if the EU does not become a federation soon, it may disintegrate reasonably quickly. Therefore, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, where we always were pressing on the breaking pedal, has created a sudden opportunity for making some fundamental changes, by drafting a new Constitution, a potential end product of not yet formally launched the Future for Europe Conference.
Unfortunately, we have missed the boat. Instead of being fully engaged, accelerating the integration process in the direction that we might agree with, i.e. a very shallow centralized federation, with most of Brussel’s current powers devolved back to the states, we may be knocking again at the door of possibly a federated Europe, on which shape we have decided ourselves not to have any influence.