EDINBURGH – It is a near-tragedy that the United States and the United Kingdom – the two countries most identified with long-established stable constitutional frameworks – are now ranked among the world’s most dysfunctional democracies.
In the past, when Britain’s Parliament faced crises and appeared deadlocked, it proved capable of breaking the stalemate. Over two centuries, battles over electoral reform, the Corn Laws, free trade, the House of Lords, and the Irish question were eventually resolved by reform and compromise.
But now an all-consuming two-and-a-half-year debate over the UK’s relationship with Europe has overwhelmed Westminster and consumed Whitehall’s time, energy, and patience. And as the March 29 Brexit deadline approaches, neither the government nor Parliament seems capable of ending the impasse they have created.
The latest government initiatives – to be discussed in Parliament on Tuesday – simply show that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. A week of “consultation” has been at best a farcical exercise in hearing but not listening, by a prime minister painted into a corner behind her own red lines.
Her party is divided, her cabinet is split, with perhaps half its members now jostling to succeed her. May’s withdrawal agreement was rejected by a record-breaking 230-vote majority, and Tuesday’s proceedings are likely to reveal that there is still no majority in Parliament for any policy option other than avoiding a “no-deal” Brexit.
At this point, it is virtually impossible to legislate the seven complex Acts and hundreds of Statutory Instruments required by the withdrawal agreement in the 32 parliamentary workdays scheduled before March 29. But, most worryingly of all, the UK not only has a government that is unable to lead, but also a public that now seems unwilling to be led.
At no point in this grim process have any of May’s proposals enjoyed the support of more than one-quarter of the public. According to a poll commissioned by Hope Not Hate and Best for Britain, more people than ever – 68%, and probably still rising – now feel that no political party speaks for them.
Disconnect, mistrust, accusations
The disconnect is now so great, the mistrust so deeply felt, that accusations of “betrayal” and “treason” have become everyday language. Remain supporters claim that the 2016 referendum was won by lies, misuse of stolen data, and criminal breaches of electoral law. Leave supporters believe the promise of a clean break with Europe has been broken.
If, as may happen, a messy last-minute compromise deal is conjured behind closed doors, the public will feel shut out from a decision with far-reaching effects on their lives, and people’s trust in politicians may never recover.
So, it is clear that Britain cannot end the deadlock, repair the shattered trust, or heal a divided country without re-engaging the public in the solution. The dialogue Britain now needs is one not just between Parliament and government, but between our political elites and the British people. Respondents to the same recent Hope Not Hate poll agreed by almost two-to-one with the proposition that, “It would be better to … pause the process and seek a consensus by gathering ordinary people together to discuss the options.”
It is now high time for politicians to do what should have been done at the outset: bring the British people into their confidence and be honest with them that the search for a quick fix is over. “In or out” sounds simple. But even the hardest of hard-line Brexiteers who want “out” remain keen to buy and sell to EU countries and to travel freely to and from Europe.
And that requires the complex supply chains serving industries like aviation and car manufacturing; landing rights and road traffic regulations; and environmental and animal health standards. Even supplies of life-saving medications as basic as insulin would be imperiled by a no-deal Brexit.
Replacing one set of complex treaty arrangements with another is a vast undertaking. And simplistic comparisons, such as with a divorce – after which partners may never communicate again – or with leaving a golf club (while insisting on changing its rules), simply do not apply.
For more than a half-century, since then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan prepared for the UK’s first membership application in 1961, Europe has been the subject of unending debate. Yet there have been only two in-depth examinations of what being part of Europe means to Britain: the reports MacMillan commissioned and the Labour government’s 2003 studies – 23 volumes of them – on the case for and against abandoning the pound and joining the euro.
Fact-based studies like these are needed now more than ever. So, on Tuesday, Parliament should vote not only to extend the Brexit deadline, but also to consider ushering in a series of Citizens’ Assemblies. With public hearings in each region of the UK, supported by Parliament’s Select Committees, a representative sample of electors should consider the facts, not least the issues that dominated the referendum debate: who controls the UK’s borders and laws.
Such consultations should be followed by a reconsideration in Parliament of our European options. Then, if it is agreed that the situation has changed, Parliament will have the option of a renegotiation with the EU, followed by a referendum to give the entire electorate the final say.
Such public hearings have been conducted successfully from California to Scandinavia to Australia, and most recently – and to great acclaim – in advance of the abortion referendum in Ireland. There, an issue that could have been hijacked by extremists on both sides became the subject of a civilized debate in which people of devout faith and resolute feminists stood their ground, listened, and came to respect each other’s positions. In the end, those who lost the vote did not dispute the referendum’s verdict.
Britain can learn from this, and I sense that – freed for the time being from the binary yes/no choices of the past – the British people could unite around the proposition that the situation has changed since 2016, and find common ground. Such a breakthrough is needed for another, more urgent, reason: the alternative, a no-deal Brexit, would lead to lost jobs, reduced trade, panic and stockpiling, and highways transformed into truck parking lots as ports along the English Channel seize up.
Political deadlock in the US and the UK has been causing widespread chaos. But the two countries’ egregious failures of statecraft may have very different consequences. Presidencies come and go, and the resilience of America’s carefully crafted constitution will prevail. But if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal, its marginalization, diminution, and decline could be felt for decades to come.
Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. He chairs the Advisory Board of the Catalyst Foundation.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.