Charles Parselle, a lawyer, shows how both the main parties seem to be lying to themselves, adhering to fantasy proposals. To move forward we need another referendum, backed by new ways of working such as a Citizen's Assembly. Other jurisdictions have shown the way.
The commonest adjective about them now is ‘delusional.’ It is the sort of condition for which one can be ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act. There is no longer even the sense they are lying to us, as in 2016, but to themselves and each other. Both major parties are affected or more accurately, infected. The PM votes against herself to unite her party around a proposal already rejected by the Europeans multiple times. The chair of the Labour party, Ian Lavery MP, writes in the Guardian that a second referendum could destroy public trust in politicians, and is echoed by shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon. It is quite a remarkable statement considering the public’s trust in politicians has been lower than twenty percent since at least 1983. Parliament forfeited the confidence of the electorate years ago, as the Commons was racked with expense and sex scandals and the Lords packed with about eight hundred peers of no discernible function. To write of losing our trust is yet another delusion that such trust still exists.
Lavery’s subtext also reveals contempt, to be charitable probably unconscious contempt, for British voters – somehow too dumb, too busy, or too delicate to be trusted to vote again – that is to say, in a referendum. That contempt is revealed by his eagerness for another general election. Labour has just failed to force an election by a no-confidence motion, even though the last election was only 20 months ago and the one before that only 25 months, but Lavery would welcome general elections as often as necessary “until the voters got it right.” The referendum is now 31 months ago, but a repeat would be “betrayal” even though the circumstances are now entirely changed. One wishes it was just hypocrisy rather than delusional.
The country slithers towards the no-deal disaster. Even so, more politicians across the spectrum think another, carefully drawn and deliberated referendum might be exactly what is needed to cut the Gordian knot. But still “Labour believes that a different deal can be secured.” There is no basis for this assertion; the EU knows that if it reopens negotiations, it will betray Ireland and by extension any smaller EU country. Labour’s fantasy that it could get a better deal is never going to be tested because it would need first to topple the government. But it repeats the futility because it is not really talking to us any more.
People generally do not change their minds much; rivers of words flow through them but their minds remain dry. Orators who can persuade people to action are rare. Of Demosthenes it was said that when others spoke, some admired their eloquence, others thrilled to their passion, still others were moved to tears, but when Demosthenes spoke, his hearers said: “Let’s march.” Clearly we do not have a modern Demosthenes in the Commons, and tribalism exercises its deadly warping effect. In 1939 into 1940, Conservative MPs did not start listening to Churchill until it was almost too late.
So three years after the Brexit campaign the status quo has not greatly shifted. In 2016 there was a 4% majority in favour of Leave. The polls now consistently suggest an 8% swing in favour of Remain. That shift is attributed to young Remainers acquiring the vote and elderly Leavers passing on, rather than being persuaded. Even so, the right wing of the Tory party and the left wing of Labour are united in thinking another referendum would further reduce the public’s trust in them. As their approval ratings are at rock bottom, the improbable unity-in-delusion of those extreme wings of the two major parties remind one of Yeats’: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Britain has only held a handful of referendums in its long history, the majority as part of devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Senior politicians have often been hostile to them. Churchill proposed one, but Atlee referred to them as instruments of ‘nazism and fascism’ and Thatcher as ‘devices of dictators and demagogues.’ So in the UK referendums have only been used in matters considered as of the greatest importance. Other places however use them routinely and have integrated them into the functioning of government. California calls them propositions or initiatives, and employs them in every election cycle, in which voters are often asked to vote on different issues according to a detailed procedure. One can chuckle at California, until one realizes that its 40 million population generates 136% of UK’s GDP by purchasing power parity. There is more money in California as well as more democracy.
In the UK, the argument against referendums rests on the sovereignty of parliament so that a referendum result must be necessarily non-binding. If so, it might be asked with equal force, why are both the left wing of Labour and right wing of the Tories so adamant in insisting the 2016 result is binding? If Parliament is sovereign, it cannot bind its successor, or even itself from one day to the next; the next vote is sovereign. It is just confused thinking to insist that the referendum result was binding.
If the sovereignty of Parliament is a strong reason that referendums can be only advisory, it is no argument against their more frequent use. The dismal approval ratings of Westminster, now extending nearly forty years, tends to suggest that Westminster is no longer fit for purpose. It is mired in excessive secrecy, obsessive power hoarding and endlessly confrontational posturing. Either we go on with the shouting matches, still quite amusing to Americans who are used to the sepulchral tedium of their Congress, or we must think some new thoughts, which is probably impossible for Westminster politicians. This is evident when one meets them; with some notable exceptions most of them are committed, intelligent and frustrated. They too are victims of a system that is no longer fit for purpose and they seem powerless to change.
Brexit is a tough problem but it is no more so than abortion in Ireland. That issue embroiled the entire population and implicated the whole history of the Republic, intensely involved the Pope and the Catholic Church, and proved impossible for elected politicians to resolve. The Irish finally tried a novel idea – more democracy, in the form of a citizens’ assembly It worked. Ninety-nine strangers closeted in a hotel with each other somehow arrived at a resolution that the Irish population was able to support in the resulting referendum.
The solution to the seemingly insoluble in a democracy, whether parliamentary or otherwise, is probably more democracy not less. If existing institutions are not working, the wrong solution is to scrap them and the right solution is to develop complementary democratic institutions alongside them. It worked in Ireland. It works in California. It works elsewhere in the world. Westminster has already devolved power to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. It needs to get used to consulting its remaining constituents more, not merely to seek votes at election time. It probably needs to develop citizens’ assemblies. And it needs to approve another referendum to provide answers that it is incapable of generating within itself.
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