Democracy, Winston Churchill once famously said, was the worst way to run a country “apart from all the others that have ever been tried.” Unfortunately, he did not make clear what kind of democracy he favoured.
Britain’s dreadful Brexit impasse has divided the country into roughly equal camps, both convinced democracy has been traduced. And they both have a point. What started as an argument over the European Union’s democratic deficit, and the way in which it encroached on Britain’s unwritten constitution, has degenerated into something more fundamental: an argument about the nature of democracy itself in the UK.
This crisis is in turn the bequest of generations of making minor tweaks to an unwritten constitution while avoiding the extremely difficult decisions needed to write a new one. In the void, two forms of democracy are attempting to co-exist in Parliament — representative democracy and
On the one hand, Britain is a representative democracy, leaving decisions to elected MPs. Yet those same MPs sanctioned a Brexit referendum, or an act of direct democracy. The current crop of representatives, elected a year after the referendum, cannot agree on a way to enact it.
The House of Cards-style intrigue plainly shows the limits of representative democracy. Within the Commons there is no majority for any one course of action, and nobody has managed to thrash out a workable compromise. Two prime ministers – Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson – have tried to paint the issue as Parliament thwarting the will of the people.
But the imbroglio also shows the weakness of direct democracy. Britain’s membership in the EU, we now know, was far too complicated and subtle to be framed as an either/or question. One tribe says that nobody voted for a “no-deal” Brexit, while the other says that a majority is for a Brexit in some form. Both are right.
To deal with this, either the people should be asked ever more questions to help their representatives sort out the mess, which is impractical. Or they must trust their representatives to sort it out. Neither is happening.
And the problem runs deeper. Time and again in the last few decades, politicians have confronted anachronisms in Britain’s political apparatus and made changes while shirking the far harder task of devising new institutions. The result is a political system in gridlock.
Under Britain’s unwritten constitution, the monarch is absolutely powerful but faces a duty of eternal self-restraint. In this way, Britain has avoided arguments attending any attempt to write a constitution and abolish the monarch. The Queen worked on the assumption that she had no right to turn down Johnson’s request to suspend Parliament. For a hereditary monarch to say no to a prime minister would have introduced an even deeper constitutional crisis. But the incident revealed that the prime minister enjoyed monarchical powers to suspend Parliament – and it is not surprising that it triggered a rebellion.
Next look at the House of Lords which, it is whispered in the parliamentary lobbies, might yet try to stage a filibuster of the bill barring Johnson from accepting a “no-deal” Brexit. The Lords has been stripped of hereditary peers but it is still an unelected body. It is hard to believe it has the the legitimacy to thwart the will of elected MPs.
Now turn to the parties. Until a generation ago, MPs alone chose their leaders. Both Labour and the Conservatives have moved toward a looser model like the American system, where all party members have a vote. But the result has been half-baked.
Johnson was elected by 140,000 Conservative activists far more strongly opposed to the EU than the rest of the country. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn was elected by an expanded party that allowed anyone to be a voting member after paying a modest fee. An influx of enthusiastic ideological left-wingers swung the result. Neither party’s leader has anything like the broad mandate of a US presidential nominee. Both represent unrepresentative electorates while failing to command the support of their own MPs in Parliament. So the major parties lack the legitimacy to sort the Brexit mess.
Would a general election help, as Johnson suggests? Probably not. The “first past the post” system works well in a purely representative democracy where MPs as individuals have great latitude. It is useless if there is any hope that Parliament should reflect the “will of the people.” In that scenario, results are affected by the geographic distribution of votes and distorted by the presence of major alternative parties. There is no reason to think that MPs in a new Parliament would accurately reflect the broad spread of opinions about Brexit.
So it looks hard for the UK to sort Brexit without reforming its parties and its electoral system (while also possibly agreeing on an elected upper chamber and even limiting or replacing the power of the monarch). Moreover, nothing will be solved until Britain drafts a written constitution. The nation’s democratic deficit appears at least as serious as that of the EU, and resolving it may require turning the UK into something far more like a continental European country.
And that is not what anyone thought they were voting for back when the Brexit referendum first surfaced.
John Authers is a senior editor for markets. Before Bloomberg, he spent 29 years with the Financial Times, where he was head of the Lex Column and chief markets commentator