Charles Parselle argues that we can emerge from our present existential crisis with democracy renewed and a realistic vision of our national future.
How did Anglo-America evolve over a mere 300 years from a small Tudor kingdom into a global community with such a hegemonic grip on the world? Kevin Phillips’ 1998 book The Cousins’ Wars asks and attempts to answer this question, but today as we fester in the age of Trump and Brexit, the phrase ‘hegemonic grip’ grates unpleasantly. Nostalgia can be corrosive.
Get a grip? We don’t have a grip even within our own island. Even so, the triumphalism embedded in that phrase explains much of the nostalgia for things past in slogans like ‘take back control’ (Brexitism) as well as ‘make America great again’ (Trumpism), for both of which 2016 was the apex year. As we reach the 3-year anniversary of both events, Trump’s latest caper, asking the Ukraine president to dig for dirt on his likely electoral rival Joe Biden, may get Trump impeached.
At home, Boris Johnson’s startlingly belligerent performance in the House of Commons, was sufficiently ugly to provoke condemnation from his own sister and from all 118 Anglican bishops, as well as howls of anger from all sides of the House.
Both Trump and Johnson use the same playbook of intemperate language, always attacking, never apologizing, lying, accusing everyone else of lying, attacking the judiciary, the press, lawmakers and experts. The playbook here is by Dominic Cummings out of Steve Bannon (Trump’s ultra-right former adviser) but dating back to the psychopathic mob lawyer Roy Cohn, who mentored both Senator Joe McCarthy during his destructive rampage in the 1950s and Richard Nixon before his resignation to avoid impeachment. McCarthy died of alcoholism, Nixon was disgraced, and Cohn died of AIDS. These are bedfellows of populist nihilism with no creed other than personal gratification, though there are earlier, even viler antecedents.
This is the time of Big Brute and Little Brute, whose brief stint as Prime Minister has comprised multiple Commons defeats, with no ability to control the date of the next general election. They have many enablers, but then brutes throughout history have always managed to attract such people. How did we sink so low? In short, because too many of us have preferred delusion over realism.
This is our existential crisis, for which Brexit is merely a code or metaphor, with fault lines splitting the country in multiple ways and even jeopardizing its geographical integrity. Brexit did not create all the fault lines but most certainly exposed them. It has engulfed both major parties, and like the English civil war in the 1640s, has divided families and villages and towns and districts and localities and counties. Then it was parliament versus the king; today, according to Little Brute, it is now parliament versus the electorate.
If Brexit actually happens, Scotland might well become independent, and quite possibly Northern Ireland will unify with the Republic of Ireland. That will mean the end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and a reversion to the political situation existing at the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.
Even if crashing out of the EU does not threaten our physical existence, yet it would also do nothing at all to heal the divisions in the country. How to heal is the question now. Parliament contains many impressive MPs as anyone watching the recent debates will agree, but as an institution it no longer seems fit for purpose. It simply does not and cannot offer a sufficient democratic check which our crisis demands. The Supreme Court has defended the sovereignty of Parliament, but ‘power to the people’ is honoured only in the breach.
If we remain in the EU, the country will remain split along ideological lines. If we exit the EU, the country will become even more divided with Brexit exacerbating numerous other fault lines. If our existential crisis is to mean something, then the entire British nation needs a period of reflection, so that those who are interested enough to take part will have a significant say in determining what kind of future existence we actually want.
The fact is our old existence is over. We may have been one of the most successful imperial powers in history, and our three hundred years of imperialism may have become part of our national psyche, but it is over and it is not coming back. Sure, the industrial revolution started here but pretty much everything in the shops has ‘made in China’ on it.
The flaws in our democracy have been fully exposed. We need reforms, but if some people have their way, we will have little or none. Less democracy could occur under Little Brute, if he prevails for another five years. He might with his enablers turn the country, minus Scotland and Northern Ireland, into a low cost consumer emporium with cut-to-the-bone regulations, low taxation for the wealthy, and diminished services for everyone else.
More democracy might take many forms. Inside Parliament, it could include an end to the excessive secrecy long characteristic of British governance, along with excessive power hoarding. Select Committees could acquire the power to compel appearances and take evidence under oath. Some effort could be made to reduce the excessive tribalism observable in the House of Commons. Outside Parliament, the 2016 referendum has rendered most MPs gun-shy of ever permitting another, but we could easily learn from other nations how referendums can be routinely and successfully conducted. The Irish have shown how citizens’ assemblies can be used to the great benefit of the country. The House of Lords is bloated and could be reduced to about half its numbers, dedicated to proper scrutiny of proposed legislation. The excessive power of social media to permit the anonymous spread of falsehoods and to allow the promotion of dangerous language could be stopped overnight by making those media platforms legally responsible for the actions of those it now allows with impunity. Democracy relies not only on accurate information, but also on effective tools to deter false information. Mandatory attendance at polling stations, postal voting and weekend voting would increase turnout.
As Ian McEwan writes in his recent novella Cockroach, Brexiters no longer make any arguments in favour of leaving the EU, other than “we won the referendum,” and the rest of us must accept the constitutional convention, recently invented by Nigel Farage called “losers’ consent,” which apparently means voters backing the losing option should accept the result with good grace. Instead of anger at the unworkable question posed by the referendum, and much more anger at the Johnsons and Goves whose lies cobwebbed the entire electorate, Brexiters have just doubled down, like the followers of a mad guru the day after he predicted the world would end at midnight. Unfortunately we are all losers of three wasted years sacrificed by three successive Prime Ministers, all trying to resolve a longstanding internal Tory dispute by putting the entire country at risk, along with the very concept of a United Kingdom. One doubts that Farage will still be talking about losers’ consent when democracy finally functions effectively again and he becomes an historical footnote.
That Brexit insiders intend to turn the country into an offshore bazaar for cheap unregulated goods is lost on Brexit voters. The increasing use of violent language and threats of violence are one-sided. They have forfeited all moral high ground. They should indeed be angry as they have been cheated, lied to and betrayed, but by their leaders who consistently told them the unworkable would be a piece of cake. The democracy we have is just about sufficient to avert a no-deal Brexit, but it is nowhere near adequate to heal the wounds so cavalierly inflicted by venal politicians. We need more democracy, new institutions outside parliament and reforms within.
You’ve been stirring up an earthquake, you’ve been cooking up a heart break,
Our love is on the fault line, I can’t believe that you’re so blind…
The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.