Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 16 April 2018

How Brexit threatens pluralist democracy in the UK

A pluralistic democracy is a democracy with many centres of power. Typically that involves an executive (the government) and parliament, central and local government, an independent judiciary and an independent press. Countries differ in how pluralist they are: the UK has a more permanent civil service than the US but its second house of parliament does not have equal power to the first.

Plurality is embodied in conventions as well as institutions. In a two party system the other side is respected as embodying the wishes of part of the population, and there may on occasion be cooperation between politicians on different sides over certain issues. In addition plurality itself is respected: the government does not normally contest the power of parliament and the judiciary, for example.

Although there was room for improvement before Brexit (power was pretty centralised), the UK was a pluralist democracy. This post is about how Brexit has begun to threaten that. It began with how the Prime Minister, encouraged by a section of her party and a large section of the press, interpreted the referendum result. The country was almost equally divided. That should have meant that the form of Brexit should have tried to take account of the fact that almost half of those voting wanted to stay in the EU. Instead the Prime Minister chose a form of Brexit that appealed to a clear minority of parliament.

Perhaps partly because of this (but I suspect also because of her temperament), Theresa May chose to marginalise parliament as much as she could. She didn’t want it to vote on whether Article 50 should be invoked. That battle went to the supreme court, and she lost. The press that had played such a crucial part in getting a majority for Brexit called the judges ‘enemies of the people’ or similar. If judges had hoped for some defence of an independent judiciary from the government they were disappointed.

However the executive did not only aim to take power away from parliament on this one decision. In the bill that transfer EU laws to the UK, various Henry VIII clauses were inserted which gave the executive the power to ignore parliament. The opposition voted against these clauses, and eventually May was forced to retreat when some Conservative MPs rebelled. These rebels have been branded saboteurs on the front pages of the right wing press. As of now it remains the case that MPs will not be given a meaningful vote on the terms of the final Brexit deal: if they vote against the government says it will leave with no deal.

The government has also done its best to try and conceal the analysis the civil service has done on different forms of Brexit, and ministers have lied to parliament and the public in the process. The Prime Minister and ministers seem happy to lie to the public about the imaginary Brexit dividend, and the broadcast media fails to question these lies. Ministers appear to have no qualms in calling the leader of the opposition a traitor based of fanciful stories in the right wing press.

Is there something inherent in Brexit that has brought about these attacks on pluralistic democracy? To an extent I think there is. Brexit is a fantasy project that will actually do the economy harm, and as I argued here when politicians attempt to conceal the truth from the public they tend to become more authoritarian. As the dreams of some Brexiters fall apart on the rocks of the EU negotiations and the Irish border, no doubt similar attempts will be made to conceal that truth from the public as well.

However I think there are two other factors linked to Brexit that have helped this form of populism emerge in the UK. The first is the character of Theresa May herself. She shows a disregard for people that I cannot remember in previous Prime Ministers. The current excesses of the Home Office with respect to immigrants who have lived here for decades is a direct result of her ‘hostile environment’ policy, which she seems happy to continue. She took the decision to ignore the wishes of the 48%, and she also decided to use EU migrants in this country as bargaining chips in the negotiations. The government seems largely indifferent to the increase in attacks on immigrants since the Brexit vote. Her focus seems entirely on keeping her party together, whatever the collateral damage in terms of broken individual lives.

The second factor is the right wing press. In other countries we have seen the dangers of the state (or head of government) controlling large parts of the media. The same problem arises with Brexit. At its best the press can expose government failure and corruption, but at its worst it just acts in its owners self-interest. When those interests happen to be aligned with the interest of the government then the press acts as the state's propaganda arm. It has been the right wing’s press that has banged the ‘will of the people’ drum, which is classic populist (as in anti-pluralist) trope. The situation has been made much worse by the BBC’s apparent indifference to negative news about Brexit: its lack of interest in the Cambridge Analytica link to referendum overspending allegations is deeply worrying.

Understanding why we have seen attacks against pluralist democracy in the UK helps answer the question of how permanent these threats might be. Parliament is to some extent fighting back at the attempts by the executive to reduce its power. If Brexit is neutralised as an issue, the force behind attacks on pluralistic democracy disappears, unless of course it is replaced by something else. However Theresa May could remain as Prime Minister for a lot longer than people imagined after the election of 2017 [1]. The right wing press will still be with us, with their message amplified by the BBC. The situation in the UK is not as bad as it is in the US, where the entire Republican party seems to have given up on pluralistic democracy, but that is cold comfort for a country that often boasts of its democratic heritage.

[1] That includes myself. When I wrote about the Conservative zugswang, I actually underestimated the bind the Conservatives were in. I confidently said “The Conservatives will not fight another election with May as their leader.” That is now less clear. As long as Brexit remains a live issue, which it will do until the end of 2020 at least, the majority of Conservative MPs dare not replace May because the party could elect someone like Rees-Mogg to take her place.


  1. Inherent in the 2016 referendum, as opposed to that of 1975, is the absence of ends.

    The 2016 referendum is a generation journalism referendum; the politicians and media supporting it said that they are the Experts.

    Only these Experts can process the Art of the Deal to bring about a beneficial settlement, done in camera until the editorials have pronounced its open success.

    I don't know why but my mind keeps coming back to the poll tax riots.

  2. The Establishment is the realm of free thought and diversity? Give over. They spent a generation saying 'although it looks like we're merely serving corporate interests, we actually just Doing What Works in our post-ideological way.' Then when the 'entire intellectual edifice' came crashing down in 2008 and it was apparent that Doing What Works actually comprehensively Did Not Work At All, they just propped up the corpse system and started screaming apocalyptic prophecies whenever anyone suggested doing things that corporate interests might not like but might be necessary. The trouble is, they were so catastrophically bad at Doing What Works that when they produced what seemed to them like clinching arguments of apocalypse- 'wages will fall 2% and house prices will fall 20%' - for many that actually looked like a massive upgrade to the status quo.

    So the Establishment instead turned to character assassination that in fact destroyed their authority. They predicted an instant recession because consumers would stop spending en masse, and when consumers en masse told them that they would not react like that but just carry on as normal these consumers were smeared as mentally ill.

    Then when the votes were in the mask really slipped, because they started screaming about 'post-truth'. They spent the last half-century smugly declaring that 'scare-quotes' "Truth" was nothing but an expression of power relations and that our mission was to dismantle them. All they can possibly mean by 'post-Truth' is that they are horrified that their own illegitimate hierarchical power is under attack. It is rank hypocrisy, which they distract themselves from through utterly repugnant fantasies that a harsh winter might kill off the elderly. 'The elderly deserve a cruel death because when some of them made a binary choice they could only have been motivated by hate.' Hypocrisy upon hypocrisy.

    Don't concern yourself with trivialities. Although a 'Soft Brexit' might have been feasible before the referendum campaign, the way that the Establishment has conducted itself means that root-and-branch reform is required. We cannot rely on the Establishment to voluntarily do this, because the sad explanation for their horrific conduct is that they have spent their entire lives assuming that we are at The End of History and the basic parameters of society are fixed; and that the point of their lives was to jump through endless hoops and beg for doggy-treats from other people who have spent their lives jumping through endless hoops and begging for doggy-treats. The most they can dream of is that they will find some niche within the status quo that can become their Unique Selling Point from which they can derive a sense that they are successful and needed. The trouble is that these niches only make sense within the structure of the status quo. The status quo must therefore be defended to utterly irrational extent. We thus cannot expect the Establishment to enact change on the revolutionary scale that is absolutely necessary of their own free volition. They need to be pressured into doing it.

    What Brexit represents is a small-scale test, rather inconsequential in its own terms, to see if necessary, radical change can be got through our current democratic processes even if it would destroy things that the Establishment cherishes. I have to say it's making a pretty good fist of it so far.

    So recognise that Brexit is a minor, benign, peaceable revolution. And recognise that the choice is not between Soft Brexit and Hard Brexit, but whether necessary radical change can be accomplished through our current democratic processes, or whether we have to start looking at alternatives.

    Brexit is not an end goal -- there's no point in Taking Back Control if you're just going to endorse what the Establishment thinks is a good idea -- but it looks like whatever goals we choose to seek after Brexit we will be able to do them through democratic means. Hurrah.

    1. Brexit has nothing to do with "Taking Back Control" - with respect I think those believe this have been hoodwinked by a bunch of people who actually want to take more power for themselves.

  3. Hi, Remainer here. I find your argument in this post problematic strategically (for stopping Brexit in the year we have left) and factually.

    The independent judiciary is not threatened. Not only is May bound by the Supreme Court ruling, but it's quite normal for ppl to criticise court decisions they do not like especially journalists. Remember when Jon Stewart of the Daily Show said of the Supreme Court "you're ****ing wrong" for removing campaign finance limits? Was that an example of the liberal media threatening the independence of the judiciary? No. It's like when Al Gore said he "strongly disagreed" with the ruling that prevented him becoming President, but in rougher language. Same if you put it on a front page headline.

    The idea that losers of a referendum should get a say is attractive, but it doesn't necessarily follow. Just as parliamentary majorities don't have to give things to the opposition. If Scotland voted for independence by a small margin, would that give the unionist losers a right to independence lite instead? Or the same if a referendum is held in Northern Ireland?

    If we had voted to stay in the EU by 52%, would the 48% who voted Leave be supposed to get something in compensation?

    The Tory manifesto pledged them to implement the referendum result, that's normal.

    The Henry VIII shows a lack of self-awareness on your part. Parliament has to vote on that, and it's normal for the executive to drive Parliament. The same goes for joining the EEC to begin with, and all the treaties we have ratified since then. All of them involved legislative powers being handed from the UK Parliament to the EU instead, which is legitimate. Did you think that integration was a threat to pluralist democracy too?!

    As for Cambridge Analytica, there is a similar irony. I don't want anybody to violate spending rules and for the campaign to be fair of course. And yet we know both camps spent about £15 million, but that Remain got an additional £9 million of spending in the form of the government's mail shot which told voters to choose Remain.

    So really it was £24 million versus £15 million, and £9 million on one side was from taxes. There's grounds to say the campaign was unfair, but Cambridge Analytica is a far smaller effect, not that the effect can even be known. Do you want to redo the referendum without a government mailshot to make it fair this time? Not good enough.

    We have 1 year left before Article 50 kicks in and we get a damaging hard Brexit. "Democracy in danger" is counterproductive hyperbole. We must convince the public that their personal finances are in danger to have a chance of stopping or softening Brexit.

    1. I think you miss understand the nature of plural democracy - it means having many centres of power. Brexit is an attack on plural democracy because it reduces the number of centres of power. It really is that simple.

  4. Excellent commentary, and one I have shared with others.

    I think one mission component of your analysis is Devolution; a powerful support for your central argument regarding the concentration of power and the erosion of liberal democracies containing multiple centres of power.

    The UK is a unitary state, yet it isn't really: it's a quasi-federalist-but-not-really state in which - despite how much the Tories resisted it at the time, and still don't like it - does have centres of power in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. Brexit is not forcing the UK to deal with this "unitary state but with devolution" paradox.

    Today the UK Government has asked the supreme court to challenge the Scottish and Welsh Governments' Continuity Bills (despite not having their own bill in order in London).

    The outcome will be in favour of the UK Government, and will definitely re-assert the centralised and centralising nature of the British state on the British executive.

    One-way-or-the-other, the Tories are going to erode Edinburgh and Cardiff as a centre of (competing) power by undermining the Devolution settlements.

    For Scotland this is particularly precarious position if you're a Unionist. The majority of Scots favour devolution within the UK, but the Tories are removing this option to make it a stark choice between an overbearing, centralised British state or independence. If this is how Scotland's choice is framed, it is a fight which the British state cannot win.

    The Tories eroding pluralistic democracy, but going so by weakening the institutions of the British state which held it all together.

    I don't think it's hyperbole to say that we may very well be living in the final days of the British state as we know it, politically, constitutionally, and territorially.

    1. The UK govt is not exactly "undermining the revolution settlements" if you think the Supreme Court would be right in taking the UK govt's side. The settlement is after all a matter of law and the UK or devolved govts would be able to undermine it if they were free to violate the law.

      As for Scotland specifically, the SNP's position on Europe changed 180 degrees since 1975 anyway. They can just change it again, since there's nothing anti-Scottish about being in or out of the EU.

  5. Momentum is more of a threat to pluralist democracy in the UK than Brexit. They don't even like Jews in the Labour party.

  6. This is a really interesting article - I myself had been thinking something similar recently. Further I would say that the whole 'sovereignty' argument made by Brexiteers is actually a bit of a red herring with regards to improving our democracy - 'sovereignty' as they mean it actually means a reducing the number of centres of power essential in a plural democracy to ensure the healthy balance. Also, these are mostly the same people who went for the Unions and much reduced their power (whether or not you personally think that was a good thing). Ironically, the same people who labelled the 48% as 'metropolitan elite' are in reality being very elitist themselves in reducing the plurality of our democracy still further.


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