how to stop brexit

Nick Clegg, Britain’s erstwhile deputy prime minister, is such a skilled political commentator. Last year, I enjoyed his book ‘Politics: Between the Extremes’, in which he advocated centrist politics. Clegg is a reasonable man. He outperformed both David Cameron and Gordon Brown in the 2015 Election debates. His latest book, ‘How to Stop Brexit’, just 136 pages long, is written more in the genre of a political self help book for the thoughtful voter. As Clegg might say if he were not so self effacing, ‘How to Stop Brexit is the indispensable handbook for saving Britain from an entirely pointless calamity’. Of course, Mr Clegg will be criticised as a remoaner and a dedicated Europhile, but he still represents the centre ground of reason in British politics and he deserves to be listened to.

In the first section of the book, he set out the reasons why so many people felt impelled to vote to leave Europe at the 2015 referendum. They included: fears of loss of sovereignty, uncontrolled immigration, interference in our courts and institutions, the threat of a federal Europe and a nostalgia for a time when Britain was great; perhaps even a reaffirmation of the British Commonwealth. Britain has never had the same attachment to Europe because of the events of the Second World War when it stood alone isolated from the continent. The perspective of France or Germany is very different.

Clegg explained that Cameron felt impelled to hold a referendum in order to silence once and for all the large body of eurosceptics within his party and to halt the threat of a resurgent, populist UK Independence Party. He also identified the elite businessmen and millionaires who bankrolled the Brexit campaign, asserting that Brexit was not a triumph of the little man against the powerful elite; it was more a powerful coterie of rich elite manipulating the minds of the masses. He reaffirmed the statistics behind the vote, pointing out that 72% of young people voted to remain, while those who voted to leave were a mixture of the elderly, the workers, nervous of losing their jobs to foreign immigrants and the shires of little England. The majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain. The vote was close; too close. 52% voted to leave; 48% to remain. If the franchise were extended to all of those over 16, it would have gone the other way. A fervent supporter of proportional representation, Clegg demanded to know how the millions who voted to remain will be represented. An in/out referendum is already being seen as a foolish strategy, based more on power and party politics than the rights of the people. It should never have been a case of in or out, but more a case of making life in Europe better by revising the workings of the European Union as Britain has been trying to do for the last forty years. After all, it was Britain who suggested the structure of the single market and the customs union. It is therefore rather galling to find that since the referendum, Europe has got its house in order in a way that would have suited Britain better.

David Cameron took an enormous risk. Maybe, having fought the 2015 on the promise of offering people an in/out vote on Brexit, he felt he didn’t have a choice, but then again, he never thought he would lose; he was a man who had never lost anything in his life. Maybe he should have kept out of campaigning, as he did with the Scottish referendum  and Harold Wilson did in the first EU referendum in 1975.  So Cameron rushed through the 2016 referendum just a year into his government with insufficient preparation. Many people, myself included, did not understand the arguments. Others were frightened by the conflict of misleading statistics from experts on both sides. Some may have even been swayed by the promise emblazoned on the side of Boris Johnson’s battle bus, the 350 million pounds windfall from not having to pay Europe that would be given to the NHS.  But perhaps most reasonable people were irritated by having to make a choice they felt was unnecessary about implications they didn’t really understand.

Nobody had prepared for a leave result. Cameron resigned on the spot, recommending Mrs May, who had campaigned to remain in Europe, as the person best equipped to unite the party in the upcoming negotiations to leave. Having started the clock ticking by declaring Article 50, she then wasted months fighting a pointless snap election, which was designed to strengthen her authority but ended up losing the conservatives their majority and necessitating a humiliating agreement with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. Since then, May and her ‘Brexit Bulldog’, David Davies, have postured in Brussels and squabbled with their own party. It has been a shambles and all that has been achieved is an unsatisfactory climb down and a last ditch agreement to move on to trade talks.

Clegg identifies Mrs May as not having the flexibility to negotiate while Jeremy Corbyn just sits on his hands and waiting for it all to fail. With so little progress emerging so far, about the most interesting revelation has been that David Davis and Michel Barnier share a love of hiking, but while Barnier has polished his boots, planned his route and stocked up with energy bars, Davis is still struggling with the zip on his anorak!

In the second part of the book, Clegg describes the disastrous consequences for Britain of leaving the EU, the loss of trade, the erosion of Britain’s influence in the world in direct contrast to what the Brexiteers fought for, the loss of any ability to determine our own future on the fringes of a Europe that is controlled by a combination of Eurocrats and big business.

After the surprise election of Donald Trump, Mrs May rushed over to America to hold the new incumbent’s hand and assert their special relationship, promising a state visit to Britain. That was then. The state visit is on hold and so is that special relationship. Meanwhile Emmanuel Macron invited Trump over as guest of honour on Bastille Day.

After the result of the referendum, there is a certain inevitability about Brexit. Backing down does not seem an option. Britain would lose face, and become a laughing stock. But it already is. Clegg makes the point that it is not too late to change our minds. Many people, angry at having been so misled, seem to have done so already, Clegg asserts. The result was hardly represented the will of the people, he reiterates, reminding us that we are deciding the future not of us but for the millions of young people who voted to remain or would have done so if they were old enough to vote. It is their future that is being decided. If Mrs May were not so implacable or Jeremy Corbyn less inscrutable, ministers could force another vote for the good of the country.

Setting out a plan for revision, Clegg appeals to all of us, saying that if we think that the wrong decision has been made, we should make our voice count by writing to May or Corbyn, joining their party, attending a party congress, tabling a motion. Parliament is due to vote on the final deal in October. If they fail to do so, Clegg insists that we should hold another referendum and go back to Europe and renegotiate a new deal. If successful, it will never result in all the concessions and special deals we have enjoyed in the past, Our position in Europe would be more of an associate than a prime mover for the time being, or as Clegg puts it, more on the outer circle of Europe than at its core; ’twas ever thus. But it’s not like Britain will have no influence. We will still be one of the biggest economies in Europe with a seat at the table. Britain will remain close to Europe no matter how Brexit works out.

To catalyse such a new deal, he further recommends setting up a UK/EU commission under the direction of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and Anglophile and guess who – Sir John Major, pilloried at the time by Spitting Image as the grey man of British politics, but the man who negotiated the Maastricht treaty and Britain’s special deal on the Euro. The signs are that if Britain did want to rejoin or not leave, the door would be open. Several heads of state have said as much. Jean Claude Junker has said that he wants to be in the same boat as Britain, while Donald Tusk put it more poetically, ‘you may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one’. So, according to Clegg, it’s up to us.

It all seems very unlikely that the upcoming trade negotiations will work out well for Britain. We cannot have our cake and eat it. Britain will not be allowed to stay in the single market. It suits France’s and Germany’s vision of a more integrated Europe that we are on the periphery where we can no longer hold things up.  The world has changed since the European project first got underway in the nineteen fifties.  There does not seem to be a coherent plan on how Britain can survive, let alone prosper, outside the European single market.  As Captain Oates might have said all those years ago in Antarctica, ‘it would have been better to stay inside the tent pissing out than to go outside’, but he did realise that he ‘might be gone for some time’!

london-brexit

It wasn’t so much a problem when human beings lived in small hunter gatherer tribes of 20 to 40. Then, they worked together, sharing the tasks of hunting, foraging, making fire, cooking, shelter, defence to ensure their survival. The dilemma occurred after they learnt how to grow, harvest and store food and to domesticate wild animals and were able to settle in stable communities that grew to hundreds and then thousands of people. This necessitated the allocation of roles for purposes of food supply, trade, defence and public health and a system of laws to regulate societies.

Initially such city states were ruled by strong or powerful kings; warlords who defended the community and organised the people by force. As the threat of invasion receded, this type of leadership could so easily become tyrannical and burdensome. Democracy or ‘rule by the people’ was introduced in Athens in about 500 BCE. Plato, writing at the time, feared that allowing people to govern themselves would lead to anarchy or mob rule, which would inevitably revert to tyranny or dictatorship. It is perhaps no surprise that he favoured a benign oligarchy of philosophers, but what arose in Athens was a somewhat larger more representative ruling body of ‘free’ citizens, that excluded slaves, foreigners, women and children.

As states increased in size, direct rule by the people led to chaos and inertia. It had to be managed. Democracy’s dilemma has always been how to guarantee the right of every citizen to have a stake in the running of the state, while ensuring that decisions regarding defence, food supply, trade, property and public health could be made under sound logistical and moral principles without undue argument and delay. The answer was to elect or appoint people who could represent different factions within the community. However, only those with sufficient political and moral training were considered able to supervise the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Some states created an extra tier of organisation to safeguard effective governance. The government of ancient Rome offered power to the people through the election of tribunes, but political authority was held by the senate, who listened to the tribunes and transformed the will of the people into workable laws. America’s congress is based on the Roman model with a house of representatives and a senate. Each state within the union appoints two senators. While representing the interests of each state in the political process, they review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and oversee the president’s administration.

An ideal democracy, while acknowledging the diverse opinions of the electorate, must, none-the-less modify voter preferences to ensure good government. Such transformation of popular needs and concerns into effective legislation needs to be conducted with transparency, honesty and equity, ensuring that the opinions of different factions are heard and debated in order to attain a workable consensus. Moreover, the legislative, executive and judicial roles of government should be kept separate so that each is independent. Finally, the decisions of government should be carried out in accordance to a written constitution, which is nevertheless subject to periodic review.

How many modern democracies operate entirely according to those principles? The answer, of course, is none, although most claim accountability to the people they represent. Practical expediency necessitates at-best, compromise and at-worst, subversion.  As a system for running a state, Churchill once declared that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

In his recent book, ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, the philosopher, Professor Anthony Grayling, outlined three reasons why modern democracies, particularly those in the UK and US, are failing. They are: governments are too self serving of their own class and faction, the electorate is inadequately represented and insufficiently informed and there is too much interference in government by external agencies.

An Elected Dictatorship.

In the UK, the prime minister and her cabinet effectively run the country, subject to the ‘approval’ of parliament. They organise both executive and legislative functions of government and are only accountable to the people inasmuch as they can either be endorsed or rejected after five years. Bills may be delayed by resistance in The House of Lords, but they cannot be blocked. Even the judiciary lacks the power to strike down laws made by parliament, although it can ask parliament to reconsider laws that contravene legislation on human rights. In the nineteen seventies, Lord Hailsham called the UK system of government an elective dictatorship. This has not changed.

A similar system exists in the United States.  Executive authority resides with the President and the House of Representatives, though the senate does have the power to overturn legislation. For a good part of the history of the United States, there has been a de facto combination of powers with the legislature and executive, both houses of congress and the President working together when the same party has a majority in the house and the senate.

The distortions and inequities of the electoral system and party divisions means that governments of both countries do not represent the diverse views of the population or even majority public opinion. Instead, the executive government represents the background and experience of those members, the President or Prime Minister have appointed. You would at least think that the executive could be held to account by their individual members, but the reality is that in the UK they are bullied, bribed and blackmailed by the ‘whips’ into supporting the party line. It was the whips made sure that article 50 was triggered for Britain to leave the European Union, even though the result of the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory document and only 37% of the electorate voted for it. On a matter as important as leaving the EU, a two thirds majority would have ensured that the people truly decided. Unfortunately, the executive was able ‘to make it up as it went along’, partly because Britain does not have a written constitution. Even party manifestoes are less an agenda for the next parliament than a wish list that may be discarded as situations change.

Both the current UK and US governments could be accused as being out of touch with the electorate and only serving the interests of a small executive group. History teaches us that such unrepresentative government can lead to envy, riot, and replacement by a more populist regime, risking another form of dictatorship. This has already happened in the US while in the UK, an alternative government is biding it’s time, waiting for the current incumbents to implode.

Representation

Government should represent a diversity of views, but the absence of proportional representation in the ‘first past the post system’, operated by both the UK and the US, means that certain views are under-represented or not represented at all. Climate change is arguably the major threat facing mankind, yet tackling it is only championed by The Green Party in the UK. Although, over a million people voted for the Greens in 2015, only one member was elected. And in the United States, Donald Trump, a candidate with no qualification for parliamentary leadership, won more states, even though  Hillary Clinton, with three years experience as Secretary of State, got 3 million more popular votes. The major parties argue that proportional representation would lead to coalition and weak government, but coalition would mean greater representation of the views of the electorate and less manipulation by class based ideology and powerful external agencies. As such, it would be more democratic.

Fake News and Bullshit.

External agencies, particularly the news media have too much influence on both the electorate and MPs. Post truth, fake news, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks, even the caricatures of cartoonists like Peter Brookes create what political commentator and presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis, calls ‘bullshit’ and can all too easily affect the way people think and vote. Bullshit is the political journalist’s stock-in-trade; they are there to probe, to question, to stir things up. It gives them access to the levers of power without any of the responsibility? But it none-the-less undermines our faith in any kind of government. Many people were manipulated to vote for Brexit by exaggerated fears of foreign intervention and immigration?

Social media has made this much worse. Google and other social media outlets can create profiles of every voter. This allows them to target voters in key constituencies or states to swing the vote in a particular direction.

Government can be manipulated by donations from rich individuals or sponsorship from big corporations, while within government, networks of military and civilian officials have a major influence what the executive decides.

For the Many not the Few.

Most MPs and members of the US congress have grown up at a time of peace. Britain and the USA and most of Europe have had no wars on their soil for over 70 years. This may explain an attitude of complacency on the part of government. David Cameron – remember him – failed to factor in a vote to leave the EU or appreciate the inherent inequality in income and opportunity that many in Britain suffered. ‘For the many, not the few’ chimes with the resentment and aspirations of lower paid workers. They are fed up with excuses and inaction, fed up with being fobbed off with the same tired old rhetoric that promises everything and never delivers, fed up with the brouhaha of party politics, fed up with the way the news media create a crisis out of everything. Although we may recognise the criticism of the government of the day and the promises for something different and better as just so much bullshit, we nevertheless are drawn in by somebody who promises to transform the political arena into something different, more can-do. This is the appeal of self appointed populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, though only the latter can claim hard won experience of government.

So now, a hundred years on from a proletarian revolution in Russia, the US seems threatened by a new form of tyranny while British democracy is rapidly losing all credibility and influence. Can we ever pull ourselves back from the brink and reform the democratic system? Or do things have to get much worse before there is the will to change them? Can we introduce a fair system of proportional representation? Can we reform parliamentary procedures and abolish the party whips? Can we ensure transparency of funding for elections? Can we abolish the manipulation of elections by profiling and targeting voters? Can we in Britain replace a defunct House of Lords with an effective and more representative senate, able to challenge the executive when necessary. Can we increase the political effectiveness of local communities? Can we hold the media to account to fact-check what they publish?

It seems that if we are ever to change our system of democracy, we need to be more involved. Government is too distant and centralised. If people could become more involved in local government, they would understand the workings of democracy. Then their deliberations could feed up to higher levels of government. But how many would wish to be involved? Call me an old cynic, but my experience in running a charity suggests that most people would rather others did it for them. Perhaps if we educated our teenagers to understand how democracy works and gave them the vote at 16, they might feel motivated to make a difference.