Britain’s unsolvable politics

As Britain’s political crisis – now undoubtedly becoming also a constitutional one – crashes on and on, it is not just the British people who are looking on in amazement and despair.  In Europe, too, political leaders are frustrated, and having to factor into everything that they say and do the realisation that they have literally no idea what Westminster will do next.

And what the Europeans, and indeed many in the rest of the world for whom the Westminster saga is compelling viewing, cannot understand is how British politics has reached this state of complete impasse.  Britain’s political system, its unwritten constitution and all, has always been seen by others as stable and pragmatic, flexible enough to handle most events, and served by a civil service who in Brussels at least had acquired an awesome reputation for meticulous work, skilled negotiating and a tenacious adherence to the national interest, while all the time being grounded in reality and what is practical and achievable.

Indeed such was the respect that British negotiators were held in in Brussels, that straight after the referendum many in the EU-27 feared that they would come off second best in the UK’s exit negotiations, and that Britain would continue its habit of “having its cake and eating it”, of “cherry-picking the best of the EU”.  For after all, that is exactly what the country had managed to achieve for nearly all of its 40+ years of membership – full rights as a member state, but opt-outs from those elements of membership it did not like, such as the euro, the Schengen agreement, the working time directive and so on.  And a budget rebate on top of that, so the UK did not even pay its full membership dues[1].

So what has happened to that stability and rational pragmatism?  How has British politics reached such a stage of incoherence and impotence?  How has the fabled unwritten constitution so completely broken down?

In our earlier article “Deadlock at Westminster” (16.01.19) we explored the conflict that can arise when a referendum – a tool of Direct or Delegate Democracy – is imposed on a system of politics which has hitherto worked through Representative Democracy.  We believe that the key to the breakdown at Westminster is that this conflict has proved impossible for MPs, both individually and collectively, to resolve.

For many if not most MPs, the whole process of discussing, agreeing and legislating for Brexit has been an agony of conflicting interests and loyalties.  Of course conflicts of loyalty are hardly new for politicians, and MPs have always faced a number of competing interests, of which their own career, their constituents’ interests, their party’s interest and the national interest are merely the main ones.

Fortunately, much of the time MPs find that these interests are aligned – for example, for most decisions, they can fairly readily conclude that their own interest, their party’s interest and (if they believe in their own side’s ideology at all) the national interest coincide, and it is easy for them therefore to follow their party’s official line and vote as the whips would like them to.  Party discipline, and indeed party-based government, could not survive if it were not so.  And where interests are not aligned – for example on a vote on a moral issue or an issue of conscience – the system is adept at recognising this and the whips generally allow free votes.

But the introduction of the referendum into the system has imposed a further question of loyalty for MPs, that of loyalty to the concept of democracy itself.  Most MPs have a genuine understanding of the meaning of democracy and understand, on an abstract level at least, the need to be seen to respect the result of the referendum.  After all, as is always pointed out by who voted Leave, the 17.4 million votes that their cause secured was the largest expression of the electorate’s wishes by absolute number of votes cast in the UK’s history.

The referendum overlaid an In-Out dynamic on a political system that largely operates on a Right-Left dynamic.  And the division between In and Out does not map neatly onto the division between Conservative and Labour.  There are members of both major parties who voted Leave, and members of both who voted Remain.  The potential for conflicted loyalties that this created (particularly for Leave-leaning members of the opposition parties, who have the choice of supporting their political opponents or not supporting their preference on the EU) is considerable.

Note that this does not automatically mean that referenda in general can never be used in the British system, or that the result of the EU referendum in particular could not have been successfully enacted by the House of Commons.  But it probably required the Conservative leadership to make it a cross-party mission, in other words drawing on MPs from all sides of the House to build their majority.  Once Mrs May had decided to make it a partisan, Conservative-only project, it became much more difficult for MPs in the other parties to cross the partisan divide and support the government.  Why should any opposition MP extend a hand to help May, when she was so clearly intent on making Brexit a Conservative-dominated (indeed ERG-dominated) project?

This was compounded by her decision to call a general election in 2017.  Again, this positioned her as a confrontational, party-political leader rather than a consensus-seeking one.  And it also meant that the referendum was no longer the latest national vote.  In short, with both the referendum and the 2017 election being legitimate expressions of the electorate’s will, it was not clear to MPs which they should pay more attention to.

As a result, MPs have had to finesse an unusually large number of competing claims, interests and desires in the various votes on the withdrawal process.  Firstly, their natural desire to respect the result of the referendum has had to be balanced against their desire to do the right thing for the country (which for many of them means that ideally, they would prefer to soften if not outright ignore the verdict of the people).

Secondly, the same desire to do the right thing for the country has had to be balanced against a deep belief in the essentialness of their own party and the need to preserve its position[2].

Thirdly, MPs are only human and would prefer to prolong their own career, so most have had to pay more than usual attention to the views of their local constituency party – never before have so many MPs, on both sides of the House, been looking over their shoulder at their constituency selection/de-selection committees.

And lastly, the more ambitious MPs, in both major parties but especially in the Conservatives, sense a vacuum at the top and possible opportunities for high office.

So far, MPs have shown themselves unsure of what to prioritise.  The usual discipline of party politics, in which MPs follow the wishes of the whips unless they have a very strong reason not to, has largely broken down, because the issue of Europe and whether to leave the EU cuts right across party lines.  As such, the standard party-based approach, viz an agreed line for all MPs in a party to take, decided by the leadership and imposed by the whips, cannot provide the answer[3].  But no stronger guiding principle has emerged to take its place.

The result has been the observed chaos.  And in the chaos, it is inevitable that many MPs will have put their personal interest and survival first (if only because this at least they understand), and all too often their party’s interest second, the national interest third, and respect for democracy last.

But if MPs continue to display that list of priorities in their voting in the House, then inevitably the public will notice and the risk is that as a result, respect for democracy itself will weaken.  This is ironic, because as a result of the goings on in the House, the public is following the democratic process as seldom before, and the opportunity for politicians to engage with the population over the issues of the day and build a true national consensus is certainly there.

But as the British public look at their politicians and the political process with newly interested eyes, they despair of what they see.  It will take Westminster, and British democracy overall, a long while to recover from this catastrophe.


[1]              This explains the EU’s determination very early in the process to hold the line on no cherry-picking and the indivisibility of the Four Freedoms.  Put simply, the EU-27 were fearful that if they did not prioritise this right from the start of the process, they would find their position fatally undermined.

[2]              The clearest demonstration of this is that, whatever their views for or against the government’s withdrawal deal, all Conservatives consider that a Corbyn-led government would be disastrous for the country and that it is therefore their patriotic duty to seek to ensure this could never come about.  This leads to the extraordinary sight of MPs voting against Mrs May’s deal repeatedly but then saying they have full confidence in her government.  But the Labour party is scarcely any less party-political in its stance, as demonstrated by their steadfast votes against Mrs May’s agreement while being unwilling or unable to promote anything plausible in its place.

[3]               This leads to the extraordinary position that quite possibly more than half the MPs in the House fundamentally disagree with the stated policy towards the EU of their own party’s leadership.  And for this reason, we personally are very doubtful that a general election would solve anything.  Put simply, one cannot solve the Leave versus Remain decision, either in the House of Commons or in the country more generally, by an election fought on Conservative versus Labour grounds, as both the Conservative and Labour parties are themselves entirely split between Leave and Remain.  And if – as seems quite possible – an election returns a House of Commons of very similar profile, the matter will not have progressed at all.