Following Brexit? You're Watching the Disintegration of Our Democracy

The ongoing parliamentary crisis shows the real fight is no longer about leaving or staying in the EU. It's about our identity as the UK.
21 October 2019, 10:51am
Brexit protest against parliament shutdown
A demonstrator on a march to protest the closure of parliament in Manchester, UK. Photo by Barbara Cook/Alamy Live News

On the face of it, the events of last weekend look like just another phase – indeed the terminal phase – of the Brexit crisis. In fact, what we are seeing is the disintegration of a democracy. You may not have heard of Joanna Cherry, nor thought much about the mass walkout of Parliament by Conservative MPs when she stood up to speak. But the incident resonates with deeper meanings.

At its most basic, it was a gesture of contempt for who she was. Ms Cherry – top lawyer and out lesbian – is one of the most senior and respected members of the Scottish National Party; it was her lawsuit that forced the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom to overturn the suspension of Parliament. The petulant walkout by hundreds of straight, white, English men was payback for all of the above.

But in Scotland, where I was watching the Brexit debate on Saturday, it was also read as a gesture of contempt for where she's from. Boris Johnson's party, which has already ditched its oldest Celtic allies in the DUP, seems laid back about the possibility of alienating the entire Scottish nation. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to Remain, has seen its devolved institutions and government ignored – and will almost certainly leave the UK if a hard Brexit takes place.

At a deeper level, the entire parliamentary process has descended into gestures of contempt. The barracking of Corbyn. The hectoring of Diane Abbott and journalist Owen Jones by known far-right agitators in the streets outside parliament. The shutdown of parliament itself, unlawful as it was, was also gestural – a signal to the people who read racist tabloids that both parliament and the judiciary are enemies to be fought, not institutions to be worked through.

To people watching American politics, this will be familiar. The US under Trump is now in the same political territory as it was in the run-up to its 19th century Civil War. Long before hostilities broke out, according to historian Allan Nevins, there were already "two peoples" in America: not just separated by attitudes to slavery, but by their culture and demographics.

Today, you can see a similar process beginning in the UK. The culture of small towns is becoming insular, parochial and self-obsessed; the bitter complaint from the poorest and most insecure is that "nobody cares about us; we've been abandoned". Meanwhile, the big cities buzz with energy and money courses through them, even in the poorest areas. In a place like Birmingham, ethnic and religious minorities rub along inside a rough democracy, where everybody gets something and nobody gets nothing. But in small towns there's either an ethnic monoculture or an unofficial apartheid.

Unfortunately, fantasies of a modern civil war, excluded even from the most rabid right-wing mainstream media, are coursing through the private Facebook groups and Telegram channels of the British authoritarian right, fuelled by myths originating from their American counterparts.

We can still contain this, but to do so we need to strengthen the commitment on all sides to the basic institutions and principles: that the "will of the people" resides in Parliament and nowhere else; that the judiciary is independent and the rule of law is inviolable; and that human rights are universal.

This week, the basic outcome of a three-year conflict will probably be decided. Either MPs will amend Boris Johnson's deal to include a customs union, shattering the unity of the Conservative benches; or they will not, and it will pass. A second fallback would be for MPs to append a Final Say referendum to the deal; so that within six months the entire electorate gets to vote on Johnson's deal versus Remain. A third fallback would be an election where the progressive parties form an electoral pact to kick Johnson out.

If you've spent three years of emotional energy on Remain you have to be prepared to see these fallback options as non-traumatic, because the real fight is no longer simply about leaving or staying in the EU.

The real fight is over whether the UK is going to be close to Europe, mirroring its laws, culture and standards, or cut adrift – in a fragmenting global order – to have a new system imposed on us by Trump's America. Once you see it this way, staying in a customs union, with the possibility of full membership of the Single Market after an election, becomes bearable.

The Eurozone, as outgoing ECB chief Mario Draghi points out, has to become a full fiscal union to survive - with taxes paid in Dusseldorf going to pay for job creation in Seville. Britain was never going to be part of that – and though being a full member of the European Council would make our semi-detached position more functional, merely committing to the customs union and single market would decide the future of our country strategically for a generation.

And that's what is at stake for the authoritarian right. Their project is not an end state: it is perpetual chaos, in which there are no multilateral commitments stopping them from reducing Britain's labour standards and environmental rules to the level of India's. Their project is a race to the bottom and their method is perpetual uncertainty and the blame game.

On Saturday, while Parliament talked, somewhere between one million and 2.2 million people marched for a second referendum, the majority committed to a Remain project. Many asked why, when the BBC goes out to vox pop "the masses", they find mainly racist pensioners whining about "foreigners" while simultaneously demanding the return of the British Empire?

The point about a democracy is: it has to be able to contain both facts. For the UK, in addition, it has to be able to contain and express the aspirations of four different nations and (because Northern Ireland is divided) five national identities. In addition, it has to be able to mediate the demands of ethnic minorities, and express the increasingly different priorities of those under 35 and those over 65.

To do this, we need to stop treating each other with contempt. This will be hard – because there is ample justification to hold in contempt the Conservative and right-wing populist politicians who have inflicted on them, and the handful of Labour MPs who are ready to help them. We need to understand that the front line of the coming battle to save democracy, and avoid becoming the Mar-a-Lago of the North Sea, takes place not in Parliament Square, but in your pub, in the queue at the kebab shop, at the school gate, and in the back of a taxi.

It is in these real situations – where human faces have to look at each – that the fantasies of the far right evaporate; and where the cultural divide can weaken. Experience tells us that people only come together when they struggle for something – and that's why I don't blame Jeremy Corbyn for continually trying to change the conversation around to the economic issues that leave millions of people insecure. But it hasn't worked so far.

So, tragically, the clear progressive majority that's emerged since the 2016 majority can always be defeated because it contains three different objectives: socialism, Scottish nationalism and neoliberal nostalgia for the Blair years.

So maybe the project that emerges has to begin from everyday life. The most inspiring things that happened in the last ten days for me was not the People's Vote march. It was the walkoff by non-league players in Yeovil after racial abuse, and the in-match crackdown on racism by UEFA officials in the Bulgaria vs England match.

There England fans chanted "Who put the ball in the racists' net? Raheem fucking Sterling". And the Bulgarian neo-Nazis left the stadium. If there's a cause for hope, it's that.