That, over two years after Britain voted, narrowly but nevertheless decisively, to leave the European Union, it remains necessary to say ‘if Brexit happens’, is not only a shameful indictment of the ruling class’s contempt for mass democracy, but also a warning of what must follow if it does happen.
Fifty-two per cent of those who voted in the EU Referendum, no fewer than 17.4million people, voted Leave – the largest vote for a single policy in British political history. On the best psephologists’ estimates, approximately 63 per cent of Parliamentary constituencies voted Leave. Approximately 85 per cent of votes cast in the 2017 General Election went to the two main parties whose manifestos and candidates both pledged to respect and implement the Referendum result.
Yet about 70 per cent the 650 MPs who purport to represent us were opposed to Brexit, and still are. Many of those 2017 election pledges were self-evidently made dishonestly. Over the past two years, we have seen repeated Parliamentary obstruction – from both the elected Commons and, even worse, the unelected and unaccountable Lords, and often going down to knife-edge votes – to almost every Brexit-progressing measure introduced by a government that is clearly reluctant to implement the electorate’s decision.
This experience has surely, therefore, made one thing abundantly clear: that, if Brexit does happen, we cannot retrieve from Brussels our powers of governing and legislating ourselves only to vest them once more in the very same Westminster Parliament which not only spent the last 45 years eagerly giving them away in the first place, but which still vehemently opposes their repatriation and our recovery of democratic self-government.
So Brexit must, in my view, be followed very quickly by significant Parliamentary and electoral reform, to strengthen democracy and the power of the electorate over the legislature, and to curb its ability to ignore or negate the expressed majority view of the voters – to make legislature, government and executive work, not in the interests of the New-Class Establishment-Elite’s cartel, but in the interests of the people.
We must start with abolition of the unelected, unaccountable, House of Lords, which has become largely a refuge for superannuated politicians after their rejection by the electorate, a bauble with which to reward donors, or a safe harbour for otherwise unelectable placemen. It has been teetering on the edge of democratic legitimacy for years, but its conduct during the passage of Brexit-related legislation has surely signed its death warrant.
That Britain needs a bi-cameral legislature is undeniable: but that the Lords as presently constituted should not comprise the second, revising, chamber is surely equally so. Whatever format we eventually settle on is debatable, but that it must be on the basis of selection by universal franchise, not favours and cronyism, is a sine qua non.
Reform of candidate selection should be high on the list. The Tories’ notorious A-List of Metro-Cameroon Cuties to be imposed on unwilling constituencies has thankfully gone, and Labour’s dominance by hard-left Momentum seem to have done for All-Wimmin shortlists; but neither main party, with the occasional exception, appears at all keen to open their candidacy processes to a wider selection and thus make them not only more transparent, but more representative of their local members’ views and concerns. The case for open primaries is strong.
A proper recall mechanism, by which a minimum percentage of constituents can ‘recall’ a MP to face re-election, is a priority, and not only to deal with misconduct. How many Remainer MPs, of both main parties, in Leave-voting constituencies would persist in obstructing Brexit in defiance of their electorate if a mere 5 or 10 per cent of it could trigger a recall, force them to stand again for election and possibly lose their seat?
MPs, of course, are dead against this. Tory Zac Goldsmith’s Bill presented in the 2010-2015 Parliament to allow constituents to recall an errant MP to face re-election was watered down almost to the point of ineffectiveness. MPs decreed instead that only a committee of themselves was fit to decide whether a fellow MP had misbehaved sufficiently to have to account to his electorate. So far, miraculously, none has been so adjudged. That needs to change.
More direct democracy is needed, both to counter the tendency of the elected to ignore the views of their electorates once elected, and to sustain and/or enhance voter engagement in politics.
For national-level democratic participation we must rely on a once-in-five-years cross-marking exercise, based on manifesto commitments and campaign promises which relatively few expect their parties to honour. But in an age when we can book a holiday, arrange life insurance, or apply for a university course with a few mouse-clicks or screen-touches, why should this be?
Switzerland manages to hold between seven and nine referendums each year, and on issues other than major constitutional questions such as the voting system or EU membership, and is hardly the divided society that the anti-referendum types claim. It is no coincidence that the Swiss are regularly the people expressing the highest confidence in their system of government.
The potential abuse of postal voting through over-generous qualification, and the related issue of voter ID fraud, urgently needs addressing. The requirement for voter ID at the polling station in a democratic election ought to be axiomatic and a subject beyond debate, while postal voting needs once again to be restricted to those verified as genuinely too ill or infirm, or overseas on military service.
Objections to some of the above will no doubt be raised on the grounds that they contravene the Burkean principle that the elected MP is his electors’ representative, not their delegate. My contention, however, which I intend to explore more in a future article, is that so many elected MPs themselves, by so manifestly disregarding the majority wishes of their individual electorates and the country as a whole, have stretched this principle to breaking point.
Without significant Parliamentary reform to make the legislature more responsive to the electorate, extra-Parliamentary action starts to acquire a legitimacy of its own. That prospect should be welcomed by nobody, but a Parliament constituted on its present basis is not a fitting repository of powers hard-won back from Brussels.