Failing UK Politics Must be Called to Account

Kirsty Hughes | 5 February 2019

UK Parliament, Rennett Stowe, CC-BY-2.0

There’s a triple purpose to Theresa May’s refusal to rule out a no deal Brexit.

Firstly, it is in part a forlorn negotiating tactic with Brussels – one that says we will do the UK great harm and the EU some harm if you don’t give in. Secondly, it’s a means to put pressure on a range of MPs: the less fanatical Tory Brexiters, Tory and Labour remainers who might vote for her deal in the face of no deal, and the range of pro- or accepting-Brexit Labour MPs.

But the third purpose is a deliberate PR strategy towards the wider public: it says that if Brexit happens with a deal – May’s deal however tweaked – then the country will stop the endless damaging Brexit debate and stop tearing itself apart – or that politicians will stop leading the country into its torn apart state. It’s an attempt to provoke relief and acquiescence.

But this is an even more forlorn gambit than May’s use of no deal as a negotiating tactic. Brexit with May’s deal would put the UK in an even weaker bargaining position and presage even more internal political debate and division as the UK attempts to see what sort of inevitably bad future deal it can agree. Brexit on May’s deal is a route to ever deeper political crisis and failure.

Democratic and Political Discourse Failing

The Brexit process has unleashed political and social forces, over the last two and a half years, that have led the UK to a state of grave political and constitutional breakdown and deep social division. Remain is ahead in the polls – at 56% in the latest YouGov poll – but divisions run deep. And the bigger majority is the 80% of UK adults who disapprove of the government’s handling of the Brexit talks (as shown in the latest ORB tracker poll – 80% being the highest disapproval rating since the poll began in November 2016). The public does not support this unfolding political crisis.

And the UK’s political discourse is failing too. From Michael Gove’s denigration of experts to the ‘traitor’ language of several media outlets and politicians to the crass, rude and aggressive approach by some Brexiters to our European counterparts to threats of violence and unrest, the standards of the UK’s political, media and overall democratic life have fallen into the gutter. And when lies, half-truths, and law-breaking pass as normal, then our politics and our democratic discourse is failing.

Certainly, the remain side have their share of strong language on social media and politicians and others who unhelpfully tell their opponents that their position won’t be forgotten. But the trashing of political standards surely belongs more to the pro-Brexit side.

Opposition Failing

And, of course, Labour under Corbyn continues to back Brexit too. The chaos at Westminster and the deep splits and loud debate across the UK over Brexit – now impacting onto political identities more strongly than party affiliations – in a way conceal the fact that the remain half or more of the UK population lack strong political representation at this time of acute political crisis.

Labour’s sustaining of its political fudge over Brexit right into the last two months before the 29th March deadline is a deep political failure and a deliberate choice. And it creates a failure of our political system too as the two main parties both support Brexit and are both deliberately unclear on the detail of their Brexit policies – May on the future relationship, Corbyn on ‘closeness’ to the single market, both of them on the similarity of their policies.

When the Brexit process is causing direct (self-inflicted) damage to the UK politically, economically, socially and in security terms, the pro-Brexit vagueness of Labour means it is, at best, essentially abdicating opposition. So at a time of such acute political and constitutional crisis, opposition is left to the third and fourth parties at Westminster – the SNP and LibDems – and to parts of civil society and the media.

Crucially, Labour’s own inchoate pro-Brexit policy means that the dishonesty of the government and many Brexiters about their own policy, and the ever lower standards of political debate, are not held up effectively to account by the opposition. It’s not possible to call out lack of clarity or fudge if that’s your own policy too.

Scotland ignored

In Scotland, two-thirds of voters now support remain. So Brexit divisions run less deep within Scotland helped by the fact that remain support amongst voters crosses the independence/unionist divide. But Brexit divisions run very deep vis-a-vis the rest of the UK. The Scottish government’s support for a people’s vote to halt Brexit reflects the majority views not only of SNP but also of Labour, LibDem and Green voters. So, in some sense, there is less of a Brexit democratic deficit in Scotland – remain voters have representation at Holyrood and at Westminster. But at UK level in the context of the two main parties’ support for Brexit, Scotland has little say, power or influence. It is represented but powerless.

And with the undermining of devolved structures due to the Brexit process, and with Scottish Tory and Labour parties backing Brexit too, there is a deep alienation in Scotland in the face of the Brexit crisis. For some, independence is the solution – and debate will surely grow if Brexit goes ahead. But an independent Scotland will not escape the economic damage from Brexit, just as Ireland will not. Meanwhile, Scottish concerns are largely ignored amidst the London-based political debate as the political crisis grows.

May and Corbyn closer than either would admit

Part of the political failure of Brexit is the similarity, in many ways, of the two parties’ positions and the weakness of their leaders. Neither May nor Corbyn look capable of or interested in serious leadership in the face of the Brexit crisis.

Theresa May, it appears, does not want a no deal Brexit. But she’s ready to risk that happening, and so is responsible for the widespread damage that the possibility of a no deal Brexit is already doing, rather than rule it out and calm the situation. Her crude strategy – running down the clock to the last minute in the hope that perhaps in the last week of March, after the EU’s 21-22 March summit, the Commons will fall in behind her deal (with whatever tweak she may desperately, powerlessly take from the EU27) – is one that takes no hostages. May is insouciant in the face of the political, social and economic damage her strategy entails – a damage that won’t end even if her deal were to pass.

And neither May nor Corbyn will admit what is clear – that their two positions both effectively entail a customs union. May has, of course, semi-abandoned her deal for now to play to the Brexiters on amending the backstop with no concern for the Irish peace process or the majority view in Northern Ireland – a majority that supports remain but would support the backstop if Brexit does go ahead.

Nor is May paying any attention either to the realities of the EU27’s position on not re-opening the withdrawal agreement. If May were an effective, high-level political operator in Europe, we would have seen that by now though it’s possible she will get some repetitive legal codicil but that will change nothing of substance.

In terms of the similarity of May and Corbyn’s positions, it comes down to the backstop and the customs union. The backstop, which must be in the deal, can only later be superseded – ‘in whole or in part’ as the political declaration puts it – if a new trade deal achieves the same end. It’s impossible to see today how that could be done other than through effectively a permanent customs union.

But May won’t admit that. And nor will Corbyn admit that May’s deal effectively gives him what he says he wants. Nor will either admit the hard borders and economic and social damage of leaving the EU’s single market. May is prime minister and in government – so she surely bears the greater responsibility. But both May and Corbyn are directly complicit in the chaotic damage of Brexit – and both, for now, hide behind the extraordinary damage a no deal Brexit would do to pretend their Brexit would be ok (and different to each other’s).

Is delay the best hope?

Labour did, at least, swing behind Yvette Cooper’s failed attempt last week to provide for delaying Article 50 (through a request to the EU). But Corbyn did not discipline the shadow front-benchers and other Labour MPs who voted against or abstained. Perhaps, on 14th February, there may yet be a majority vote for delay. But the Commons looks unlikely even then to agree what delay is for. So where would that take us amidst this failing UK politics?

Until now, the EU have indicated that they might extend Article 50 – which needs unanimous agreement – in the face of a specific request from the UK to extend it for something, such as an election or another referendum. The EU might too agree a short delay (which would certainly be necessary) if May’s deal passed in late March but the necessary EU Withdrawal Agreement bill had not passed nor the range of associated legislation needed (and that now seems impossible to pass by 29th March).

Some suggest, in the face of the UK’s imploding politics at Westminster, that the EU could even say (despite the challenge of the upcoming European Parliament elections) that the UK should go away for a year and figure out what it really wants to do. But few can really want this chaotic failing Brexit politics to stagger on for another 12 months in its current state.

So delay is not guaranteed – it needs the Commons to vote for it in a way that binds May and the EU to agree. And delay without a specific route ahead looks desperate.

Another referendum is one such route ahead. It could even be a two-part question – first, do you want to remain or leave, and then, in case there is a majority for leave still, do you want May’s deal? Perhaps the ballot could even offer May or Corbyn’s deal – if Corbyn could make it specific (beyond ‘close to the single market’). The electoral commission could then tell us if there was any real difference in the two deals.

Rescuing our politics

But the other urgent need is surely to get back to something resembling normal democratic politics. That means, in the face of a major and damaging systemic change like Brexit, that there is opposition rather than half the public lacking political voice. And it means getting back to political debate and discourse with decent standards, with reasonably civil and civilised debate, with use of evidence and analysis. The remain side has often been told that it used facts not emotion – and yes political vision and debate needs emotion too. But democracy does not need debate based solely on ideology, fantasy, insults, lies and half-truths and the ignoring of the most basic facts and evidence.

An election would solve little either on Brexit, or its associated failing politics, as long as the two main parties both embrace Brexit and either passively accept or promote and indulge in the trashing of political standards and discourse. And the first past the post system makes a third party breakthrough very hard. If there’s a current 56% majority for remain while the two main parties represent leave, there’s a democratic and political problem.

The campaign for a people’s vote rightly continues. But we also need at this critical juncture in UK politics to make it clear this damaging political fiasco is not in our names. A delay in Brexit that led to a serious reconsideration of our constitutional and political structures, processes and standards, one that led to a serious debate of the sort of country we want to be, that accepts that the farce of the last two and a half years must stop now, would be a serious turning point.

But for now the UK does not appear to have the political, moral leadership to step aside from this crisis and turn towards normality. Whether civil society can step in here and urgently demand change – a manifesto for decent politics and for political and constitutional renewal – is a tough demand but may be the only route ahead.

But time is running out, so the time to act is now. Otherwise, the UK’s political and constitutional crisis will deepen further and rapidly.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.