Brexit Without Change

UK Premier Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Brussels, 8 December.

It will soon be a week since the May government secured the first part of the Brexit deal, it concerns the Irish border and the full alignment of UK regulations with EU standards. But what is more important than the minutiae of the agreement is what this says about the British withdrawal.

For starters, the so-called ‘Brexit deal’ has been described by EU leaders as a “gentlemen’s agreement”. The trouble with an agreement between gentlemen is that it is often only good for so long as it is convenient. This is very bad news for those who were hoping the deal clarifies just how the UK might leave, especially those who see a glimmer of hope for a ‘soft’ Brexit.

At some point, it is conceivable that either the reasons for the deal, or rather the reasons why the alternatives are not sought out, will pass out of consideration. Suddenly, we will find that the deal was never a deal at all. Anyone who thinks this is not a possibility has no idea about history. If the trade deal is scuppered, or the next stage falters, the terms of this agreement might be torn up.

This might suit hardline Brexiteers, further petrify Remainers (as if that is difficult thing to do) and throws open the whole gamut of awful possibilities – a hard border and a race to the bottom of all regulations and taxes. With this in mind it is worth looking at the problems which hang over the UK in this strange historic moment. Sovereignty and democracy are hugely important in this process, so these factors are where we should look first.

The anti-politics of sovereignty

One of the strange effects of Brexit has been to expose the peculiar state of the British union and the exact source of sovereignty. The Supreme Court and its ruling demanding that the House of Commons vote on Article 50 showed up just how rotten the British constitution really is. The whole point of the ruling was to ensure a democratic process.

However, Parliament voted to hand over the decision to the executive. If Parliament was meant to be sovereign, it did not want to exercise its authority. No doubt Gina Miller wanted to see Article 50 opposed in the House of Commons. This was never going to happen because only one Tory was ever going to rebel and side with the opposition against the government.

So there was never enough seats to achieve this, even if Corbyn had whipped the entire Labour Party against Article 50. It was a fantasy, in other words. Nevertheless, it was no doubt correct that Parliament should have the say on such matters. But the reasons why are unclear to most people.

It is not simply that the House of Commons is sovereign. This is a misunderstanding. Sovereignty lies with the Crown in the act of ratifying acts passed by the Houses of Parliament. The notion of parliamentary sovereignty is rather misleading because the House of Commons and Lords merely ascent to sovereignty, which remains a part of the symbolic head of state.

This goes to the heart of the issue. If the head of state was elected and the UK had a proper written constitution, we might be able to start to address the peculiarities of sovereignty and why the British public felt its capacity for self-government was being suppressed by a foreign bloc of unelected bureaucrats – as opposed to our own unelected ruling caste.

An Obituary of a Prime Minister

Democracy as non-consent

The deal itself was drawn up by the UK’s minority government and a slew of unelected EU bureaucrats. Neither side has a democratic mandate in any serious sense of the phrase. There is no accountability because the Conservative government is held together by an alliance with Ulster unionists and it can cling to power for another five years – despite the fact that it lost the election.

Yet Environment Secretary Michael Gove said that the British people can overturn the agreement by the ballot box if they have a problem with the concessions being made. This is a very convenient line for the political class to take given the intractable state of British institutions. Indeed, the terrible state of affairs in the UK might have never arisen had our political system been more open and democratic in the first place.

It assumes that the popular will is reflected by our democratic institutions. For starters, our institutions are barely democratic and merely partially representative and what they represent is quite unclear. The dominant political parties have not been democratic (though the Labour Party may be about to be democratised) in our history. Theresa May was appointed PM by the MPs of the ruling party before any ballot could be held.

If we think democracy is just a matter of drawing an X on a piece of paper every few years, while the real decisions are made by the political class and the elite behind them, then this not much to celebrate. The people are left outside the system to watch as grey men in grey suits repeatedly make stupid decisions for their own reasons.

So it is opportunistic of Gove to claim this deal has democratic consent by default. Parliament is only partially representative, not just because of the rigged electoral system, but, because the mainstream parties each represent blocs of elite interests. The fact that the public tacitly accept, or put up with, this state of affairs is not meaningful democracy.

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Photograph courtesy of Number 10. Published under a Creative Commons license.