KIM WINGEREI. Brexit chaos – the failures of Westminster

As the Brexit chaos continues, it is worth reflecting on the background that led Britain to where it is today – with no ending in sight. The root cause lays in how the Westminster system is failing to serve the people.

I feel for Theresa May as a politician who put herself – albeit willingly – in a position of leadership of a cause that was neither hers, nor for her party to take on. I doubt if there has been a Prime Minister in a less enviable position since Winston Churchill passed through those hallowed doors of No. 10 Downing Street in May of ’39.

The whole sorry Brexit saga – from its flawed inception through to its eventual ending has been caused by the fundamental flaw of Westminster democracy – party politics.

Let’s recap.

Not originally a member, Britain joined the European Union (EU) in 1973, a few years after the mercurial Charles de Gaulle’s tenure as President of France had ended and with it French objection to Britain’s inclusion. Like in most European countries, the popularity of membership waxed and waned over the years since, and both Labour and the Conservative fortunes at the poll were at times at the mercy of what Britons thought of the EU.

In 2015, David Cameron’s Conservative Government decided to put the issue to the test of the people. It followed renegotiations of terms with the EU and a period where polling showed increased support for it. Cameron was confident that a referendum would strengthen his hold on party power and set him up for the next general election.

There was no constitutional need for a referendum and the “European Union Referendum Act 2015” was technically not a referendum anyway, as the result was not by law binding on the Government. Technically it was a plebiscite.

It backfired spectacularly as Britons quite surprisingly voted to exit the EU on June 23, 2016.

As it was really all about party politics in the first place, nobody within the Conservative Party had thought it through. David Cameron had to resign and in the chaos that ensued Theresa May emerged as the new leader of the party and Prime Minister; having to lead the negotiations with the EU on an orderly exit most of her party members didn’t want in the first place.

Across the aisle in the Palace of Westminster the Labour Party has made the most of the chaos, making it their mission to obfuscate the process while being equally divided on the matter themselves.

Both the Conservatives and Labour were officially opposed to leaving in 2016 showing how both were out of touch with voters on an issue that divided the country but didn’t follow party lines.

Party politics started it, party politics muddled it further and now party politics means that the process is stuck in limbo for the foreseeable future. Prime Minister May is unable to get her party to support the exit deal her Government has negotiated with the EU, and Labour leader Corbyn is not helping, playing it for what it worth to weaken his “members opposite”.

Nowhere to be seen are elected representatives standing up to say: “hey, this is what the people voted for and as their elected representatives it is incumbent on us to find a solution – it’s about our nation, not our parties“. Instead, both Government and Opposition are quite happy to let the impasse go on, benefiting nobody, least of all the people of Britain. All in the obscure interest of party politics.

Granted, what the people voted for may not have been such a great idea in the first place. Misinformation about the consequences of leaving abounded throughout the campaign period leading up to the referendum. Unscrupulous fringe politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage milked it for what it was worth in their own power games of populism.

Without the support of her party for the deal, and with Brussels saying they have no more concessions to offer, the most likely outcome may be “no deal” – a diabolically complex situation with more unknown unknowns than even a Donald Rumsfeld could contemplate. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is also not in a position to solve anything, all they can do is oppose what’s on the table.

Calling an election is another option, or rather a fall-back position that will only serve to re-arrange the deck-chairs of the Titanic as both major parties are kinda’ committed to remain, contrary to what the people said they wanted.

The only possible “solution” seems to be a new referendum. Although that only becomes a solution if the people vote to remain this time. If they don’t, back to square one.

And all this because of party politics! All this because over the last couple of centuries of democracy political parties have been allowed to usurp control over it. All this because the well-being of the party has taken precedence over the interest of the constituents.

All this because we have collectively lost sight of what the first pillar of democracy – the legislature – was meant to be: a body of representatives of the people, by the people and for the people. It was never meant to be governed by conventions created for the benefit of politicians, not the people, nor for the purposes of developing sound policies.

As (first American President) George Washington said in his farewell address to Congress in 1796:

“(Although) political parties may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

How right he was.

Kim Wingerei is a former business-man, turned writer and commentator. Passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’. Follow @ kimwingerei.com

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4 Responses to KIM WINGEREI. Brexit chaos – the failures of Westminster

  1. Kim Wingerei says:

    Agree that there is much more to it, Jon, but it started with a flawed question based on a flawed premise by a party seeking a tactical advantage, not for the reasons of posing a genuine question to the people. I am very much in favour of more direct forms of decision making and properly framed plebiscites – using online smarts, not Postman Pat – can be a part of that.

  2. Rob Stewart says:

    Good article Kim. Just one comment in relation to this para:

    ‘The only possible “solution” seems to be a new referendum. Although that only becomes a solution if the people vote to remain this time. If they don’t, back to square one.’

    I can’t see how a vote to remain at another referendum would be a solution, unless it was by a margin of about 90%. A remain outcome, particularly a narrow remain outcome, would only inflame cry’s of “we was robbed” from Brexiteers. At the very
    least they would demand a best out of three referendum process. It would be laughable and unsustainable – so it may well happen.

    For whatever the rights and wrongs are in this dastardly, complicated, manipulated
    process, the simple fact is the democratic process got the wrong answer for the neoliberal establishment. Fact is the people voted to leave, narrowly, but that isn’t acceptable, vale democracy! And the political branch of the all powerful corporate party (aka the Government) has been instructed to deal with it. Well done David Cameron.

    • Kim Wingerei says:

      Fair point, although most recent polls seem to indicate a not insignificant swing towards remaining, even among the leavers. But you are right, a close result would not heal wounds!

  3. Jon Stanford says:

    I think it may be more than a failure of party politics that is at issue here. What we are seeing now is what happens when a non-binding plebiscite on a very complex policy issue is superimposed on a parliamentary system of representative democracy. By a narrow majority the British people decided they wanted out of the EU. But apart from the fact that many voters had a very limited understanding of the ramifications of choosing to leave, nobody knows in detail what message the voters were sending in any detail. Perhaps they wanted the impossible, namely to keep the EU’s ‘good bits’ — access to the single market — but ditch what some would see as the bad bits, such as greater political union and free movement of people. That conundrum now has to be resolved in a parliament where MPs are not delegates, who would have to do the bidding of their constituents, but representatives, who have to use their skill and judgement to vote for what they feel is the best outcome in the national interest. I think party politics are the least of their worries, with splits in both the Conservatives and Labour suggesting that party discipline is breaking down and a cross party solution may prevail.

    Australia’s referenda are different, in that they represent the only legal avenue to changing the constitution (Britain doesn’t have a written constitution). But the plebiscite on same sex marriage, in my view, was the thin end of the wedge for moving away from representative democracy. Although it produced the “right” result, a free vote in parliament would have had a similar outcome. The plebiscite was being used by Malcolm Turnbull for party political purposes, namely to assuage the Liberal Party’s neanderthal right wing. He needn’t have bothered; they got him in the end anyway.

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