Proceeding with Brexit
Parliament has now voted for a form of Brexit, for the first time, which is a major milestone in the process. It has not agreed a timetable for implementation though, which has resulted in critical Newspaper headlines: Parliament ‘puts brakes on Brexit’. It is now possible that we will have a general election that is framed as a struggle of ‘the people versus Parliament’, which would be very dangerous for the future of British democracy.
People are frustrated by the seemingly endless delays and disagreements. Boris Johnson’s declared objective, to “get Brexit done” by implementing his Withdrawal Bill, is disingenuous. All that he is offering is an orderly transition to the real decision-making: negotiating the trade agreement with the EU. Nonetheless, people are likely to vote for his approach if there is a general election because it would appear decisive.
Anthony Painter’s article, WHY HAS BREXIT BROKEN BRITISH DEMOCRACY?, points out that Brexit is “a problem that requires a consensus approach, and British democracy is built on majorities. Until we can address that mis-match, we won’t be able to find a lasting way forward.” The adversarial politics in Britain, founded on the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system and amplified by social media ‘echo chambers’, are totally unsuited to negotiating compromises. A general election could easily result in another hung Parliament, increasing people’s frustration with politicians.
Earlier this year, John Gray argued that Brexit has left the British political class trapped by its own history. He pointed to what he called “the refusal of the political class to respond intelligently to the 2016 referendum”. He continued: “Instead of trying to understand and implement its result, they have treated it as an eruption of unreason that must be resisted at any cost.” The main problem with his analysis is that the suggested causes of the Brexit vote, a “post-Cold War era that included the Iraq War, the financial crisis and a decade of austerity”, weren’t caused by Britain’s membership of the EU and nor will they be solved by leaving.
The least dangerous way forward now is for the government to take the time to pass the Withdrawal Bill into law and proceed with negotiating a trade agreement with Europe during the transition period. Only when that is completed will people be able to see the impact of leaving the EU. That, perhaps, would be the best moment for a ‘people’s vote’ to either go forward on that basis or try to reverse the process (which the EU would probably allow us to do). When there is a general election, it should be about which style of government is best able to resolve people’s real problems.