Saturday, 16 March 2019

Brexit: and raising constitutional questions that MPs are struggling to answer

Democracy isn't working: we need to reconsider how we should be doing it better:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the case for more horizontal, collaborative and diverse networks

We could look across the Irish Sea for ideas on how to break the current impasse:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and how the Irish referendum's "deliberative democracy" countered fake facts
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the Citizens' Assembly for informed public debate
Futures Forum: Brexit: and a citizens' assembly to break the deadlock
Futures Forum: Brexit: and deliberative democracy @ Radio 4

And we could look beyond:
Futures Forum: Barcelona’s Experiment in Radical Democracy
Futures Forum: Other ways of doing politics >>> "New experiments in democracy around the world are trying to take politics back to ordinary people"

Here is part of a piece in today's Financial Times which asks a few questions - and gives a few insightful answers:

Who governs Britain?

Brexit has consumed parliament and raised constitutional questions that MPs are struggling to answer

Henry Mance 

On August 29 2013, the British submarine HMS Tireless was somewhere in the Mediterranean, ready to go to battle. But unusually, its commanders were watching the House of Commons.

MPs were debating whether to authorise strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tracking events in parliament via the BBC website, the submarine’s commanders realised, before any order came through, that they would not be firing cruise missiles after all.

The Syria debate was the first time since the American war of independence that a British government had lost a vote on military action. Mindful of how little scrutiny had been applied to Tony Blair’s blueprint to invade Iraq in 2003, many MPs had wanted to avoid the same mistake. Some hadn’t wished to block strikes on Syria altogether, just to force David Cameron to revise his plan. Instead they not only inadvertently stopped the UK going to war: they also caused Barack Obama to abandon the US’s own plans to bomb Syria, leaving Assad’s regime free to commit further atrocities.

The events of August 2013 put the current crisis in perspective. Long before Brexit, MPs had started to take back control. Long before Brexit, they had learnt it was no simple task.

So, for all the hyperbole, this week’s votes to reject Theresa May’s Brexit dealand extend Brexit talks beyond the March 29 deadline were arguably not the most dramatic decisions that the Commons has made in the last decade, or even the most confused. Nor have the past three years been the unhappiest time in Westminster’s living memory. That prize goes to the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009-10.

What does make the Brexit crisis unique is its constitutional havoc. Never in recent times have so many parts of the British system been under so much strain for so long. The 1956 Suez crisis was over within a month; this has been two and a half years of parliamentary trench warfare.

Cabinet meetings have leaked, party discipline has disintegrated, parliamentary conventions have been rewritten. Strip away the chaos and the farce, and the Brexit process “has shown our unwritten constitution is basically broken”, says Stewart Wood, a Labour peer.

But the break did not start where one might expect — between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the executive and the legislature, or even the executive and the judiciary. It started with parliament versus the people. “When you have a referendum in a parliamentary democracy, MPs don’t know what to do — they don’t know what their job is,” says Lord Wood.

Referendums have never had much of a place in the British constitution. They are a recognition that the legitimacy of governments and parliaments goes only so far: that some issues, of national identity or cultural norms, do not fit on the left-right scale that governs our elections.

Clement Attlee called them “alien to all of our traditions”. Perhaps that reflected an idealised vision of parliament as a place where views were not merely represented, but moulded. As Edmund Burke told his electors in 1774, “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests . . . parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with oneinterest, that of the whole.”

Whatever the reason, before Brexit only two UK-wide plebiscites had been held — one in 1975 on membership of the European Community, another in 2011 on changing the voting system for MPs. In both, MPs and voters agreed.

The Brexit referendum was the first time that Britain’s electorate has voted for an outcome with which its MPs disagreed. Nearly 52 per cent of UK voters backed Leave, while nearly 75 per cent of today’s MPs voted Remain. That was only half the problem. The other is that most of the 25 per cent of MPs who did vote Leave disagreed with how the government (led by former Remainers) interpreted the vote. So parliamentary democracy and direct democracy became incompatible.

One way out of this would have been to ask the people to rethink or accept revised terms. It happened in Ireland in 2008, on the Lisbon treaty, in Greece in 2015, on an EU bailout, and in Colombia in 2016, on a peace agreement with Farc guerrillas. But in June 2016, no one could become Tory leader on such a pledge (ask Jeremy Hunt: he tried). Instead, the division between parliament and the people morphed into a stalemate between parliament and the executive. Before this week’s losses, May’s government had already recorded the worst Commons defeat ever on her Brexit deal. In December, it also became the first ever to be found in contempt of parliament, over its initial refusal to publish a legal opinion on its Brexit deal.


Democracies have short memories. Eight years after invading Iraq, the UK pursued regime change in Libya. After the Brexit crisis, could we have another referendum? Another EU vote, another Scottish independence referendum, even a repeat of the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll?

If we do, it will rely on MPs agitating and legislating for one. And perhaps they will consider examples of how parliamentary and direct democracy can be bound together. Ahead of Ireland’s vote on abortion, the government prepared a draft piece of legislation, so the meaning of the mandate was clear.

A more immediate question is where this crisis takes Britain’s political system. Will it create an appetite to reform or a desire not to reopen old wounds? At the very least, MPs could demand the right to determine the Commons agenda. Historian Vernon Bogdanor sees Brexit as a broader “constitutional moment” to correct years of tinkering such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Others think the answer is for the Commons to be less assertive. A group of Conservative lawyers recently argued that MPs should not be given a vote over future military action, as they have been since the Iraq war. Two leading candidates to succeed Bercow as speaker — the Conservative Eleanor Laing and Labour’s Lindsay Hoyle — would be less reformist. Lord Lisvane argues that MPs will find they don’t have the capacity to run the government. “My guess is that in a year or two’s time a lot of this passion will have been spent. I think we’ll go back to the default setting.”

Except that a generation of MPs doesn’t know where the default setting is. They see the role of a backbench MP not as an extra, but a protagonist. They have been radicalised and have already started to rebel against the party system. “The discipline has collapsed and I suspect it won’t come back after Brexit,” says Lord Wood.

Scarred by Iraq and the expenses scandal, empowered by Bercow and hung parliaments, encouraged by weak party leadership, the Commons is restless. But its limitations remain. It is an odd assortment of people, lacking in mechanisms for building coalitions. It is a caretaker boss who doesn’t relish long-term responsibility. Perhaps we should not expect more. What the UK needs most of all now is not a stronger parliament. It is a half-decent government.

Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent

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Who governs Britain? | Financial Times

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