This is the End. (But maybe in a good way.)
Britain’s constitutional crisis and how to fix it
This is the perfect statement of what’s happening in Britain right now, so read it again and think about it. Gisela Stuart is an MP, and she is speaking for many people, either for how they believe the system works or how they feel that it should work. And she is, of course, exactly and perfectly wrong.
There’s been a great deal of that around recently. Iain Duncan Smith declared that it was not the place of judges to tell the government how the Article 50 process should be managed. It is, of course, precisely the place of judges to tell government what the royal prerogative does and does not allow. The evolution of the British system of democracy is essentially the history of parliament relieving the monarch of sovereignty in large or small pieces from the time of King John onwards, and that evolution is intertewined all along its length with the development of the rule of law, which among other things requires that the executive aspect of the King-In-Parliament — the ministers and their representatives — follow the law just as much as everyone else.
But Stuart’s wrongness — and Smith’s more garbled outrage — express something important. There is a powerful mood in Britain that the representative democracy we have does not represent us; that it is not responsive to the people, but that it may be to vested financial interests, newspapers and (notoriously) to foreign lawmaking. Stuart perhaps inadvertently proposes direct popular control over parliament. The contention behind the EU vote, and behind the Scottish referendum, was likewise that the really important stuff, such as national self-definition, is too important to be left to mere MPs.
That contention runs counter to the most basic definition of British democracy as we have it. We are a representative system: we do not elect MPs and then supervise them. We choose them to make decisions on our behalf — which is why we make parties present us with manifestos, and why we demand to know the opinions of those seeking election on a wide variety of issues. We not only want to know how they will answer the specific questions we ask; we want to map them, model them, and be sure that on the issues we most care about their understanding tracks ours, so that we can reckon their response to related but unexpected issues not covered during the election discussion will be close enough to what we would wish. If those decisions do not please us in practice, we remove them at the next election. MPs are not traditionally wire-guided missiles, they are fire-and-forget ordnance. What Stuart’s statement reveals — what the popular support for the perception she expresses reveals — is that the UK is in a deep constitutional crisis.
Constitutional crisis is a term usually used to refer to a conflict between branches of government which seemingly cannot be resolved by the constituitive rules under which they operate. But it also describes the more fundamental crisis of a democratic state in which affirmation (or, ultimately, consent) is withdrawn from a system of government whose legitimacy derives from the support of the people. More plainly: when the population of a democracy no longer believes that democracy works, the democratic apparatus must respond rapidly and comprehensively to address that loss of faith or cease to be called a democracy.
Whatever happens around the Article 50 declaration and Brexit, this crisis will still be with us. It is a large part of what underlies Brexit: the conviction that our politics is not working for us, but for someone else. Theresa May, presently slipstreaming behind the affable catastrophe that is Boris Johnson, is not immune to this mood. If she cannot deliver a better Britain in short order — and she cannot, because no one can without taking on a number of major problems for which she seemingly has no more remedies than Jeremy Corbyn — she will very shortly find herself as despised as Gordon Brown was by the end of his tenure. Anyone who sits in the Prime Minister’s office will face the same storm. Absent substantial reform, the nation will become increasingly ungovernable.
So: what to do?
We need a re-envisioning of British democracy and society, and we’ll need to examine many cherished notions from across the political spectrum, many of which have been simply assumed or enforced.
First: we should have proportional representation for at least a part of the House of Commons so that every vote genuinely counts and each aspect of British political opinion of a reasonable size is given a voice. It is simply not good enough to object that this will lead to the election of extremists to the Commons; we do not choose the function of our democracy around whom we wish to elect. That is a profound violation of principle: a gerrymandering of the most repugnant sort. Extreme groups exist and have power whether they are in the Commons or not, and the possibility of their participation is the price we pay for not rigging the game.
Second: we should have a provision for citizens’ intiatives to put bills before parliament, as in Switzerland. We should also have a standing mechanism for calling a binding referendum on an issue, with a very high threshold and a two thirds majority required for victory. Such resolutions should not be able to violate certain principles or practicalities: no referendum should have the power to introduce slavery, for example, and a vote to reduce tax, for example, should not be allowed to drive the government into bankruptcy.
Third: the Monarchy and the Church should be removed entirely from the function of government. Neither has a place in a modern state. The House of Lords should be reformed, though with great caution, as it is presently almost anomalously functional in many ways. Possibly it should become a House of Evidence, whose function is to scrutinise all legislation and governmental business for accuracy and honesty, and to ensure that truth is placed at the heart of decisionmaking. At the moment, facts often seem to be a side issue for policy.
Fourth: Parliament should meet in different cities of the UK throughout the year. The present geographical disconnect is glaring. MPs should see the country they govern, and it should see them.
Fifth: the proposed tenets of tolerant democracy must be reiterated and examined, and the population must either invest in them or articulate a rejection: free speech, tolerance and freedom of religion, multiculturalism, equality, and privacy must be considered and accepted or not, along with a host of other ideas. In that connection, we must find a way to negotiate a new relationship between our press and our society, because the present one is toxic to these crucial discussions.
It’s a huge project — or collection of projects. But the alternative is a sump of resentment and disengagement.