For Britain, Brexit has been a humiliating and humbling process, but it has also been an illuminating one. It has demonstrated, better than any Europhile politician ever did, the purpose of EU membership. Only now are the economic and diplomatic ties forged over 46 years receiving proper recognition. As Brexiteer MPs and commentators have belatedly learned, institutions such as the single market and the customs union cannot be left without there being consequences.
Brexit has also exposed the frailties and contradictions of the UK’s constitutional settlement. As the historian Robert Saunders writes in this week’s cover story, the Leave vote has tested Britain’s parliamentary system to near destruction. It has pitted direct and representative democracy against each other, with neither strong enough to triumph.
The 2016 EU referendum, as we have argued before, should never have been held. It was an unnecessary vote called by David Cameron, a careless prime minister, for narrowly partisan purposes, which injected poison into the British body politic. The problem is not that Theresa May has failed to deliver the Brexit that voters were promised. The problem is that no politician could have done so.
The device of a referendum, which enshrined the “will of the people”, created the conditions for inevitable disappointment and outrage. In 1945, after Winston Churchill proposed staging a public vote on the extension of the wartime coalition, his then deputy, Labour’s Clement Attlee, replied: “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions.” As Mr Attlee feared, this mechanism has now collided with Britain’s delicate, unwritten constitution and incomplete devolution settlement.
Brexit has proved beyond doubt the need for a new political settlement. More than 30 years ago, the organisation Charter 88 (named in tribute to Charter 77, the Czech dissident movement co-founded by the late Václav Havel) was launched in the pages of this magazine. Some of the reforms it demanded, such as a human rights act, a freedom of information law and the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, have since been achieved. But many others have not.
Elections to the House of Commons are still held using the antiquated first-past-the-post voting system. The unelected House of Lords, as Helen Lewis writes this week, is still stuffed with hereditary peers, cronies, party donors and failed MPs. And the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the Western world, its opaque system vulnerable to authoritarian capture. A British prime minister – provided he or she has a majority in the House of Commons – is almost unrivalled in their power anywhere in Europe.
The electorate’s habit of returning governments with only small majorities – or no majority at all – has acted as a de facto check and balance (no party has won a comfortable majority since 2005 and the Conservatives have not since 1987). Yet the threat of an elective dictatorship endures.
Once a Brexit settlement is eventually reached, a constitutional convention should be established urgently to examine political reform. The first-past-the-post system, a majoritarian relic of a two-party age, should be substituted for a fairer and more proportional model, and the House of Lords should be replaced. Greater power should be devolved to Scotland and Wales, and to English cities and regions – it was an incomplete and uneven devolution settlement that helped to fuel the alienation and distrust behind the Brexit vote. The Irish Question needs to be addressed. And a written constitution should be introduced, better to inform citizens of their rights and responsibilities and to resolve the ambiguities that the farcical parliamentary scenes of recent weeks have exposed.
Whether or not Brexit is delivered, Britain has been irrevocably changed by the process. The new tribes of Remain and Leave will shape politics for the next decade and beyond. The union between England and Scotland may break. But this moment of crisis must now be used as an opportunity.
This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure