Is our democracy in danger?

Sep 10


2 Responses


Helen Whitten

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Is our democracy in danger?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on the law or on democratic process but the current complex conflict over Brexit: deal, no-deal, call for a general election, refusal to call an election, delay a general election, throws up so many questions for me.  Do you find the current shenanigans as confusing as I do?  Parliament claims to want a deal but didn’t want the deal and now they have secured that there will be no ‘no-deal’ nor an immediate election.  Unless, that is, Boris Johnson resigns or calls for a vote of no-confidence in himself.  Hmmm…

The trouble is that I am not really sure which side is being the less democratic.  On the one side Boris Johnson was accused of being anti-democratic as a result of his decision to prorogue Parliament.  But the Court has ruled that this was not illegal and in fact quite a normal event.  Also, as it is Party Conference time, the argument is that there will be few days actually lost to debate what has already been debated for 3 years.  But the timing was obviously not lost on Boris.  The cat was most definitely intended to be put among the pigeons.

So now Boris has lost but he is claiming to want to push through Brexit even if it kills him (which, of course, some hope it will).  He sees it as ‘the will of the people’ and is also prepared to give the people a vote on this through a General Election but, quite contrarily as I see it, the opposition parties do not go for this.  Why?  Because they don’t have much chance of winning.  So rather than give the people the chance to vote they would prefer to withhold that opportunity from the population of the UK.  Is that democratic?

You might think from this that I am a supporter of Johnson.  I am not.  However, I am concerned about the voice of many ordinary people being silenced by Parliament when MPs are, in fact, there to be the spokespeople of the electorate.  I am also concerned that there is little or nothing, in the narrative of those opposition parties who wish to block Brexit, to address some of the legitimate concerns of the Leavers. Surely these voters deserve a considered response to their worries as much as any other voters.  And some solutions.

On the other side, the opposition parties cry ‘shame’ that they are being silenced by the shutting down of Parliament, which is certainly a heavy-handed move.  But have they not all just had three years to debate a deal? And rejected May’s eventual deal three times in the Commons?  What kind of rabbit do any of them think they can pull out of a hat at this stage?  And in the meantime is it not absolutely sensible for the government to prepare for no-deal?  May was criticised enough for not having done so.

After all, having made a ‘no-deal’ impossible, this removes any bargaining power from whichever party might be negotiating with Brussels in future.  They have tied themselves in knots because surely, in any negotiation, you do have to keep the possibility of walking away on the table.  Don’t you?  Unless, as in most private divorces, there is a legal structure that outlines what is a fair outcome for both parties.  But this protection doesn’t seem to exist in what feels like a wild-west divorce.

I may have voted Remain but I do seek fairness of approach and what I am seeing is exactly what leads a population into extreme government – the ignoring of the sentiment of the people by Parliament.  The historian David Starkey commented this morning that it is a dangerous moment when Parliament overrides the will of the people, which effectively it has done by blocking a snap election.  It feels to me as if both sides are being high-handed with democracy.  Boris through proroguing Parliament but the opposition parties by preventing the election.

After all, everyone has been clamouring for another Referendum, saying it is time to put it back to the people but when given that opportunity they block it.  The election effectively provides the equivalent of another referendum (provided, of course, Labour can decide what it stands for, leave or remain).  But no, the other parties look at the polls which give Boris and Farage the potential majority and say they will only hold an election when it suits them and, in the meantime, insist on kicking the Brexit can down the road, whatever the French say.

But the people did vote Leave.  And we can no longer say that they don’t know what they voted for.  Project Fear has been well and truly publicised for three years.  So the current polls suggesting that Brexit and Boris/Farage would nonetheless potentially win an election has to reflect the fact that, despite the negative forecasts about how this country would fare on a no-deal Brexit, there are still a large number of people who want to exit the EU anyway.

Now have you noticed how there is suddenly talk of it only being an ‘advisory Referendum’, although this fact has hardly been mentioned as a challenge to the result over the last three years.  Why on earth wasn’t this status raised immediately in 2016 so that the Government could use the result as a sounding board and tackle some of the issues raised.  But no, they rushed headlong into Brexit.  Surely those opposed to the result could have made more of this argument at the time and allowed us to find solutions to the problems, besides exiting the EU?  But now we are well and truly stuck and it has unsettled our democratic processes.

What has always made me uncomfortable is the narrative about the Leavers all being ‘Little Englanders’ and ignorant idiots.  It is so disrespectful as there are plenty of thoroughly intelligent and successful people in that group.  It feels high-handed and begs the question whether the people who talk like this are harking back to days before universal suffrage.  Perhaps they regret that the vote was ever granted to all.  It feels as if some elitist metropolitan attitudes are suggesting that, as in previous centuries, some votes count for more than others.

It was only a century or so ago that universal suffrage was passed.  Prior to that only men, the wealthy and the educated had the vote.  The lower classes weren’t deemed clever enough to know how to vote.  Workers and women had to wait until the twentieth century for their moment.  Are those who are unhappy with the Referendum result equally feeling that perhaps universal suffrage has been a bad idea – that after all there are some people in the UK who don’t know what’s good for them?

There seems to be no will to listen and respect opinions that differ to our own, or to find solutions that encompass some middle ground.  I believe that this is what May was attempting to do, albeit without success or panache.  Instead each side is now adopting battle zones through the courts, parliament and the press and overriding the other party in any way they can, seemingly for political ends.  It doesn’t feel particularly democratic.  It feels dangerous.  And it divides us as a nation.

The Brexit negotiation has been a disaster for us all.  There is so much to be gained through alliance and there are many ways to achieve that outcome.  Would it not now give us all an ounce of hope if, whichever Party leads us into the future, they are able to pull this country together after all this fiasco?  I am not averse to seeing Boris land in a ditch but I do want all voices to be heard and for our country to be united in some kind of central common ground again.  We can’t take democracy for granted.


2 Responses

  1. Hi Helen – what a thoughtful and useful piece – love hearing an insider’s view. I’ve a close friend who lives there and we talk constantly about the situation.
    For me, and I am revealing my own agenda and biases here, the big and most important question about Brexit is the same question we face in all major decisions these days – how will hurt or help the battle to contain the global climate crises to stay or leave the EU?. The intricacies in knowing this are phenomenally complex, which is why I have been helping my customer’s leaders learn to think through this lens about all that they do. The politics you are dealing with are horrendous, as are, I might remind us all, those going on in the US, which are unprecedented in their level of divisiveness and recently especially, absurdity.
    In these times of silly and misguided top leadership, it may be our role as consultants and organizational development professionals, to remind folks of what matters – and of what the criteria really are for making momentous decisions , like the Brexit one.
    If you know of any research in this vein, I would love to see it – what I have uncovered so far is “thin” and not comprehensive enough to give me or others I work with a good understanding of the long term effects of the GB-EU break up.
    Thanks for posting your thoughtful introspection and for sharing your ideas. REALLY appreciate the courage it takes to talk about it straightforwardly like you did.
    Best – Chuck McVinney

    1. Hi Chuck, thanks for your thoughtful response. I find all this division very unsettling and unhelpful to the development of solutions and a way forward. I know that you are experiencing division in the US too. I do always hide behind a metaphorical wall when I publish some of my ‘thinking aloud’ columns! But we need to express our doubts and concerns, I feel, in order to bring other perspectives to a situation and perhaps bring clarity to one’s own thinking.
      The most helpful book I have read recently is Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics. His book The Coddling of the American Mind is also excellent. Both focus on the need to understand and listen to other people’s opinions and not consider them to be ‘bad’ people just because they have a different opinion to oneself. I think this approach is extremely useful for all organisations whether political or business. And for countries. I really recommend these – and Hope you find them interesting. Great to hear from you. We are about to exit Brexit for a couple of weeks for a road trip from Memphis headed East! All the best Helen

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