May has chosen the right path for democracy

Joe Oakes

March 28, 2019

When the EU referendum was carried out, and for a time following the announcement of the result, most of our rivalry devolved from conflicts surrounding the European project. Would a vote to leave be good for our health service? Can we really make our own laws without considering the rest of the world?

The Brexit debate has now surpassed any debate around the European Union itself, and the content of the discussion is no longer directed towards understanding our relationship with Europe. It is now about Westminster’s relationship with the people.

The crises of the last two years appear to have encouraged UK politics to become inward-looking. This is often, although not always explicitly, guided by a democratic undertone.

And the shift in focus has revealed that we have absolutely no idea what kind of democracy we want to live in. While the referendum and the ensuing mess reflected the frailties of Aristotelian democracy, it was mostly the result of the semmingly insidious arrogance of the representative parliamentary democracy which got people to the ballot boxes in the first place.

They won’t carry out our will, but can we blame them? I don’t believe that parliamentarians themselves are necessarily selfish or misguided. Politicians enter a job because they believe strongly in the causes that they want to fight for.

It is by no means an easy job: the hours are long and the abuse seems more than most would be able to handle. Brexit has shown not only how hard they work, but also how passionate some of our MPs can be. For this, we should be grateful.

But in the 21st century, parliament has done a particularly good job of distancing itself from voters. Tony Blair’s internationalist recreation of British identity was certainly on-trend, not to mention particularly successful. But Blairism didn’t bring everyone along with it, and the financial crash continued to make sectors of the British public feel downtrodden.

The expenses scandal tarnished members from across the house, and even the innocent Liberal Democrats managed to upset their voting base by failing to come through on promises.

For all of these reasons, you can see why the Houses of Parliament may not be a symbol of joy for many people. While representatives played politics and sought power, it appears they didn’t spend enough time at their surgeries. As a result, mistrust is the colour of our relationship with parliamentarians. The only way through these troubling times now seems to be referring to the “will of the people”, which sounds simple, except no one can work out what that actually is.

Theresa May’s address to the nation last week was a perfectly scripted populist plea. The prime minister’s characteristically tight-lipped approach to leadership came apart as she seemed to rebuke the house which she serves. She sought to redirect the public’s disillusionment away from the executive branch and towards parliament. Much of the response to this from politicians was of disgust.

But there is nothing new about Theresa May’s populism. Since the turn of the century, we’ve not had a more populist leader. May often refers to “the people” and speaks of how they defied “the establishment”. In her conference speech in 2016, she referred to the leave vote as a decisive revolution, in which people demonstrated that they were not willing to go unheard any longer.

She certainly pedalled some of the pre-existing frustrations among voters, but she wouldn’t have had to work particularly hard to do so. Indeed, her brand of populism appears to be more justified than others. Last night’s indicative voting procedure proved this. Whether or not MPs like it, May’s biting criticism of parliament is not unfounded.

The House of Commons has voted against every single possible option on the table, once again demonstrating how effective it can be at creating gridlock. MPs have spent countless hours of their debating schedule laying into May’s inability to represent the will of the country and demanding to be given the opportunity to do it themselves. As it turns out, when the moment came, they had nothing to say.

One cannot lay the blame at any individual MP’s door. It is parliament as an institution which has proven, at least on this occasion, that it is not the right body to take us through the current process.

The clearly polarised nature of the debate made it obvious from the beginning that one side was going to end up unhappy. And, from the start, all sides have shown their flaws and merits, and all the parliamentary procedures have been tended to. Yet the impasse remains.

Nick Boles remarked in a debate before the indicative votes: “After years of painful conflict, we have a moral duty to open our minds.” Boles’s understanding of MPs’ roles in democracy has admirably transcended his own position. Indeed, the success of parliament depends upon its individuals sacrificing their idealistic dogmas. Regrettably, our membership of the European Union is not an issue over which enough MPs have been willing to do so.

We are lucky, then, that the government, which is seemingly the keyholder of the only realistic way out of the process, has manufactured a moderate route for doing so. May has done everything possible to draw others onto her path, and now she’s even put her own head on the block to make sure it happens. This is the leadership we needed.

While May’s persistent reference to the national interest may seem populist in that it pits the people against a failing elite, I fail to see how she’s wrong. And while allowing prime ministers to dominate parliamentary proceedings is theoretically questionable, it is now the right path for democracy.


Written by Joe Oakes

Joe Oakes is Communications Officer at 1828.


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