The idea of a government of national unity to prevent a no-deal Brexit is a destructive contradiction and would only serve to sharpen divisions, writes Lea Ypi.
The metaphor of the body politic can be an attractive one to think about political community, especially when the body is on the verge of collapse and you have a name for the disease: Brexit. The UK has been branded ‘the sick man of Europe‘ and needs a good cure before it is too late. What better suggestion than the idea of a national unity government, united only by the noble purpose of extending article 50 to avert a no-deal?
The idea of a government of national unity to prevent a no-deal Brexit is a destructive contradiction. First, there is a contradiction in its appeal to the nation. A government of national unity identifies the whole nation with the part opposed to a no-deal Brexit. It not only ignores the will of the other part of the nation, inclined to leave the EU, and indeed leave by October 31st, but denies its claim to be part of the nation, even in name.
Second, there is a contradiction in the promise of unity. A national unity government would sharpen divisions, not only in the nation as a whole but in its parts. A cross-party government formed and dissolved with the sole purpose of fixing Brexit by extending article 50 (assuming a further extension is any kind of fix) can avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of its very consequential decisions. By its temporary nature, by its concentration of executive discretion, by its absence of a wider programmatic commitment, it lacks the democratic credentials to chart a process of future reconciliation. It prevents citizens from linking their grievances on Brexit to wider political issues, and to engage with the deeper question of what kind of society they all want to share.
Not only does the solution sharpen divisions in the nation, it sharpens them in its political parties. In parliamentary democracies, these are the primary agents that help citizens distinguish their political views, the principles they subscribe to, and the selection of policies that reflect their commitments. A government of national unity is the work of all but the responsibility of none. Such is the hope of course, yet British history has not been kind to pioneers of national unity. Lloyd George, the artifice of a power-sharing deal with the Conservatives in 1916, was the last Prime Minister the Liberals ever had. In 1931, Ramsay Macdonald’s decision to form a government of national unity with Tories led to his expulsion from the party, and to Labour being wiped out of power until 1945. 1945 was of course the year that marked the end of yet another government of national unity, and with it the eclipse of the prime minister that championed it – that same prime minister about whom Boris Johnson has written a biography and of whom he admires the statesmanship.
These were extreme circumstances. Only in the phantasies of the most ardent Leavers can Brexit be compared to a World War. Nor can it be compared to the Great Depression, though some Remainers have tried. Still, the fact that parties are systematically punished for their participation in governments of national unity is not the result of unfortunate historical accident. It is the logical expression of a very basic democratic tension, one where in consequential political moments, politicians that owe their power to the people they represent, turn crucial political decisions into matters for professionals. The price of cross-party unity is the depoliticization of those very political problems that move people to associate with parties in the first place, their classification as accidents that must be averted rather than as products of human will.
This leads to the third contradiction in the idea of a Brexit-stopping national unity government: the government part of the formulation. A government is an agent that uses executive power to make decisions in the name of the people. Its actions are supposed to be rooted in an organic web of democratic processes and institutions that enable the people’s will to be articulated in an intelligible way. This is why parties have conference debates and decisions, leadership campaigns, electoral manifestos. This is why they are chosen to represent citizens, and how they are held accountable for their performance in government, and in opposition. This is why popular sovereignty is the soul of the body politic.
A government of national unity led by backbenchers rather than the current Leader of the Opposition would not only suspend party democracy in the present, it would destroy confidence in it for the future. Just like the denial of authority to the seventeen million or so citizens who voted Brexit, the denial of dignity to the half-million Labour members represented by Corbyn reveals the enduring inability of pro-Remain elites to comprehend, let alone relate to, opinions they oppose. Both are treated as some kind of disease from which we will be cured, provided the right treatment is found. Both display the same thoughtlessness vis-a-vis the process that led to these decisions, and the likely consequences of further ignoring their rationale. This is the way not to solve Brexit but to dig the sick man’s grave.
Note: the above was first published in The Independent.
Lea Ypi (@lea_ypi) is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).
This is a really interesting take that I enjoyed reading. Thank you. My only big question is how this powerful argument against a national unity government at other times fits with what’s happening now. Several very similar harms to our democratic settlement seem to have been inflicted already. That surely changes the calculation.
For example, this is precisely how I would describe the referendum:
‘By its temporary nature, by its concentration of executive discretion, by its absence of a wider programmatic commitment, it lacks the democratic credentials to chart a process of future reconciliation. It prevents citizens from linking their grievances on Brexit to wider political issues, and to engage with the deeper question of what kind of society they all want to share.’
Similarly ‘there is a contradiction in its appeal to the [will of the people]. [The will of the people]] identifies the whole nation with the part opposed to [membership of the EU]. It not only ignores the will of the other part of the nation, [to remain in] the EU… but denies its claim to be part of the [people], even in name.’
Finally, the problem with the referendum was that: ‘A government is an agent that uses executive power to make decisions in the name of the people. Its actions are supposed to be rooted in an organic web of democratic processes and institutions that enable the people’s will to be articulated in an intelligible way.’
If I’m correct, the potential for harm to our democratic settlement here identified have already been realized. I recognize, as a result of this piece, that a national unity government entails many of the things to which I object in the referendum. What is not clear is whether disregard for the normal functioning of our democratic institutions is as much of a problem when we’ve already mutilated the relationship between popular sovereignty, government decisions, and accountability. For me, the arguments herein feel a bit like arguing about sensible driving while in the process of having a car crash.
I am also curious about the author’s thoughts on how the actions of a national unity government affect their concerns. If the only acts of such a government are to postpone irreversible decisions and go back to the people, does this mitigate the danger? Would it matter if such a government decided to call a referendum rather than a general election?
Weird that you support Cummings, unelected by anyone, against whatever elected representatives can fashion in order to stop a No-Deal Brexit.
Perhaps you can supply a poll or two to support your assumption that No-Deal has such popular support, compared with those who expect a negotiaed Brexit. There is certainly a problem of cakeism among Brexiters: they want Brexit by 31 October, but negotiated — nigh on impossible.
Toynbee suggested Beckett for her tolerability by Tories. But Starmer, with more recent government responsibility, might also be acceptable. Corbyn is obviously not.
Perhaps you don’t appreciate that in th UK Parliamentary system MPs are representatives, not delegates.
There is little time to stop Cummings — who has no love of the Parliament which you and I would rather respect.
Hi Vic, I don’t know why the article author should bother replying to you, since you don’t seem to have cared to engage with any of the points she made.
As for the opinion poll you want, the obvious answer is the ComRes poll from a few days ago. Here is a link to the (hostile) New Statesman write-up.
To summarise it seems that 44% said they agreed in answer to the question “Do you agree or disagree with the following statements? Boris needs to deliver Brexit by any means, including suspending parliament if necessary, in order to prevent MPs from stopping it”, 37% said they disagreed, 19% said they didn’t know.
As the New Statesman says, a. 44% is only a majority if you exclude the Don’t Knows; b. “Do you agree” is unnecessarily leading. On the other hand the statement the 44% were agreeing with is much harsher than wanting a No-Deal Brexit, not just that, but wanting Boris to deliver it by any means. If I had been asked that I would have wondered if “any means” included the Cromwellian tactics of using the military to stop MPs entering Parliament (remember Pride’s purge?) and probably been put down as a Don’t Know.