WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN – YET AGAIN

The fog is lifting. The plot is thickening. Minds are being concentrated. Brexit has turned out to be a national nightmare.

The UK-EU negotiations are clarifying the choices. Per now, August 2018, the British people and their Parliament have in front of them a menu with three options.

  • Alternative 1: There will be a deal along the lines of the government’s Chequers agreement.
  • Alternative 2: Britain leaves the EU without a comprehensive future trade deal and on World Trade Organisation terms.
  • Alternative 3: Brexit is suspended and Britain remains a member of the EU.

These are the only available options. A deal may be struck along the lines now under discussion. The government has concluded that this is the only kind of deal that is available, and a deal of this kind might be acceptable to the EU. Britain leaving on WTO terms is undesirable, but could happen. The government is making contingency plans for this eventuality. Britain remaining in the EU could happen if there were a change of mind.

The problem, however, is that all three available outcomes are impossible, not one or two of them but all three.

  • Alternative 1 is impossible because it implies Britain making itself a rule-taker of rules it has had no say in making. That is impossible for one of Europe’s big powers. A small country like Norway can live as a rule-taker, but not a big power. A vote ostensibly to take back sovereignty cannot result in the country diminishing itself to obeying other people’s rules.
  • Alternative 2 is impossible because it would risk the disintegration of the United Kingdom and come with other costs. It would give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to enforce and win another independence referendum, and put Irish unification back on the agenda. The economic costs, and costs to other forms of European collaboration, would be unacceptable.
  • Alternative 3 is impossible because Parliament has put the question of EU membership to a referendum and the referendum has decided that Britain will end its membership.

There are no good options available. In the end, Parliament must decide. Somehow, Parliament must cut through and choose between outcomes that all have their own impossibilities.

The ongoing negotiations will reduce the menu from three to two choices. If there is a deal, the choice will be between Alternatives 1 and 3. If there is not deal, it will be between Alternatives 2 and 3. In the first case, will Parliament reduce Britain to the status of rule-taker? Impossible. In the second case, will Parliament put the Union itself at risk? Impossible.

These matters will come to a head in Parliament later this year, or early next year. Neither Alternative 1 nor Alternative 2 will command a majority. The government will fall. There will have to be either another government, possibly a broad coalition under fresh leadership, or a new election, or a second referendum, or some combination of these.

 

THE ENGLISH ILLUSION

British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.

 

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN (yet again)

We’ve come a long way since the referendum, more than a year and a half ago (23 June 2016). We know more today than we did then. We know that leaving the EU is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership but a very complicated business with consequences for all aspects of national life. We know that it will take more time than then envisaged so that a “transition period” of perhaps two years has been agreed after the date of formal exit.

If the decision were to be made today, it would be made on the basis of knowledge that we did not have then. A referendum today might still have had the same outcome, or it might not, we cannot know.

When we get into the spring of next year, we will know more again. We should then know more about the relationship between Britain and the EU when/if Britain leaves. Someone will then have to judge whether it is then in Britain’s best interest to leave, knowing what we then know. What that someone will then conclude we cannot know now – but someone will have to make the judgement.

That someone is Parliament. MPs may or may not like it, but it will be Parliament’s burden to judge what is in the nation’s interest, the facts being what they will then be. The referendum notwithstanding, leaving or not will be Parliament’s decision.

If Parliament were to decide that Britain should not leave the EU, would that be undemocratic, given the 2016 referendum? The answer is, no. Parliament is the supreme authority in Britain’s democracy and the custodian of the nation’s well-being. It was Parliament that triggered Article 50 of the EU Treaty (on 29 march 2017), and it is Parliament that must decide what is best at the end of the negotiation process, on the basis of the facts as they will be then. It is standard for Parliament to change its mind. If a law has been passed that turns out to work poorly, Parliament will change it. That is not “undemocratic” just because the original law was passed democratically.

If Parliament at that time were to conclude that it would be best for the country to change its mind, it is possible that it will call another referendum. That would not be necessary for democratic reasons – it is in Parliament’s authority to decide – but Parliament might for political reasons see no other way.

What judgement Parliament will make in a year’s time, we cannot know. But Parliament is well aware of the burden it carries in having to make the judgement. This is being worked on in Parliament day in and day out. The action leading up to the final decision is and will be in Parliament.

Parliament’s final judgement will depend on the facts as they will then be known. The ongoing debate matters but the facts will decide. We are already seeing that changing facts result in changing constellations in Parliament. There is now a majority in Parliament for a deal in which Britain remains within a custom union with the EU.

My guess is that Parliament in a year’s time will decide that it will be best for Britain to remain a member of the EU. It will turn out that leaving will be too costly, in six ways:

  1. It will be too costly economically. The EU gives Britain seamless trade and economic collaboration with its biggest and most important markets. Introducing impediments on that trade and collaboration will bring burdens onto Britain’s economy.
  2. It will be too costly in terms of other collaborations, such as in science, education, health care, security, culture and more. It will be costly for Britain to make itself a second-class partner in collaboration.
  3. It will be too costly in terms of risks to Britain’s own union. Brexit will give the nationalists in Scotland the arguments they need to push through independence. A division of some kind of border will re-emerge between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Irish settlement will be put in danger and the question of all-Ireland unification will return to the agenda.
  4. It will be too costly for Britain’s standing in the world. Britain on its own will be a small country in a big world, without much influence. Europe unified is a world power. By leaving the EU, Britain gives up the clout is has as a partner in the European block.
  5. It will be too costly in terms of the younger generations’ future. The European lifestyle of mobility, multi-nationality and borderless living in education and work will be made less available to young people in Britain.
  6. It will be too costly in terms of the damage imposed on friends in Europe. The European Union is a political project. The aim is to transform Europe from a continent in enmity to one of nations tied together in the security of bonds of collaboration. By turning its back on this project, Britain does damage to a cause that matters deeply to friends on the continent.

 

DECISION AND DELIBERATION

Decisions made by a democratic National Assembly (or Parliament or Congress) have democratic legitimacy. That’s what we want in a democracy, decisions that are valid because they are made democratically.

However, strangely enough, the democratic legitimacy of decisions correctly made can sometimes be a problem. Whatever the National Assembly decides, must be correct because it is democratic. If someone is able to get the National Assembly to make a decision in their favour, say in a matter of taxation, they have won, because the National Assembly has put the stamp of “democratic” on that decision.

One agent who has an interest in getting the National Assembly to make certain decisions is the government. Governments have agendas they want pushed through, and they want to do that with as little trouble as possible from the lawmakers. National Assemblies are therefore under pressure to produce certain decisions and to do so without resistance.

The potential problem here is that this may push the National Assembly into making badly planned decisions because the government is desperate to get those decisions made that it has promised the electorate and to get the Assembly’s stamp of “democratic” on them. Such bad decisions are a big problem: since they are democratic, it is very difficult to overturn them and the country is stuck with potentially serious consequences of mistaken decisions.

Such mistakes happen. A case in point is Brexit. Then Prime Minister Cameron was able to get Parliament to sanction a referendum in a quick and easy decision without giving him any trouble or resistance in the matter. That was clearly a mistake. The country is now tearing itself apart and is unable to extricate itself from the mistake that has fallen down upon it. (Although it is my belief that Parliament will eventually find a way of correcting this mistake, it is, as we are seeing, very difficult to overturn a decision that has the legitimacy of a referendum behind it.)

The lesson is that National Assemblies should be able to make good decision and protected from making bad ones. Their decisions should be democratic but they should also be good, productive and workable, and certainly not counterproductive.

National Assemblies need assistance to manage the difficult combination of democratic and productive decisions.

They need the assistance, first of all, of protective procedures. Procedure is a boring matter for those of us interested in politics, but terribly important. National Assemblies need to impose rules upon themselves whereby they force themselves to not making decisions without careful scrutiny of consequences. They must avoid knee-jerk decisions because such decisions are in high risk of being bad. They must give themselves time and they must take themselves through routines of scrutiny. The Brexit decision, for example, was taken by Parliament without any preliminary work on what the consequences might be, and we are now paying the price.

They need assistance, secondly, in knowing what is in the interest of the people. One might think a good way of doing that is to ask the people, for example in a referendum. But we now know, from modern psychological research (such as by Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research), that this is too simple. You and I and all of us are prone to making mistakes about our own good because there are mechanisms of bias at work in our minds. Our instinctive preferences are not necessarily what we really want. It turns out that people often change their minds and correct their preferences if they are given the opportunity to reflect and work on them with some care.

From this, political scientists are concluding that the popular will is not something that just exists in the population but what emerges from what they call “deliberation.” The German theorist Claus Offe has suggested that National Assemblies should have the support of more sophisticated information about “the will of the people” than raw expressions of preferences. He suggests “deliberative panels” consisting of a random sample of the population – he calls them “citizen deliberators” – charged with working their way through appropriate procedures from raw preferences to “reflective preferences” in important political matters. He thinks the panels should be constituted by some kind of lot among all citizens, that their task would be to help both citizens and lawmakers to form considered judgements, and that their authority would be exclusively advisory for National Assemblies.

As often, original ideas on first encounter seem odd, but this suggestion is really quite common sense. The reason we have National Assemblies, is that in a big population we for practical reasons must appoint a sample of the population to make decisions for us. If preferences depend on deliberation, the same logic would apply to the pre-decision process of forming preference. We will not get proper deliberation unless we design proper procedures to do it.

As for additional panels to advise the National Assembly, that’s the rationale of for example the House of Lords in the British Parliament and of various other “upper houses” in other national legislatures. Offe’s idea is slightly different, in how the panels are made up and precisely what they would do, but the idea is much the same.

 

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN (revised)

In spite of the referendum, Brexit or not is still the responsibility of Parliament. Parliament does not abdicate. Its charge is to look after the wellbeing of the population and country, and it is not possible for Parliament to walk away from that responsibility, nor in its nature to do so.

That is clear enough constitutionally. The referendum was advisory. Parliament could have decided to make the referendum binding but deliberately did not. It retained in law the authority to make the final decision and is not constitutionally bound by the referendum.

It is also clear politically. As we have moved on from the referendum, circumstances have changed and we have learned more about the meaning and consequences of Brexit. Brexit on the terms suggested in the referendum campaign is not deliverable. It is Parliament’s job to decide on the impact of how things are working out and what we are learning.

Imagine you are an MP today. You look into the future. You see, from one side, coming towards you an avalanche of necessary public investments: in infrastructure, in defence, in housing, in education, in social care, in the NHS. And you see, on the other side, low growth, low investment, lagging productivity, skill shortage. That adds up to an economy that cannot generate enough public revenue for necessary maintenance of society. You cannot avoid the question of whether it is compatible with your responsibility to let the country cut itself off from its most important community of trade and economic partnership.

You look to the British national landscape. In Scotland, Brexit will give the nationalists the arguments they need to push through independence. The Union will break up. In Ireland, a new border, more or less hard, will cut through the island and disrupt the peaceful coexistence that has been achieved. The worst scenarios may or may not materialise, but you cannot avoid the responsibility for exposing the Union to high risk. You turned you back on that responsibility in sanctioning the referendum. You cannot do it again.

You look to your own institution, to Parliament. You there see no settlement and no coming together around any shared strategy for implementing the referendum. Parliament has asserted its authority and to some degree taken charge, and pulled towards Brexit moderation. It has refused the government a free hand. The government’s original hard Brexit strategy has been killed. The principles of payment and a transition period have been conceded. You have learned that Brexit is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership and you are trying to sort out in your mind what it really means.

Parliament’s confusion mirrors the population’s confusion. There is no “will of the people” out there. There is division, as reflected in the snap election. The division in the population carries through into Parliament and the Cabinet, and into the relationship between Parliament and government. Parliament is refusing the government a mandate of clarity and the government can do no more in the negotiations than muddle through without initiative, determination or direction. The risk is high that there will be no deal. Most MPs sit on the fence. They believe it is in Britain’s interest to be inside the European Union and they believe they cannot go against the majority in the referendum. That dilemma remains unresolved.

Politics in Parliament are even more tenuous than they look. Not only is the government without platform or support, both major parties have leaderships that in the European question are at odds with the majorities in their respective parliamentary parties. Leavers do not trust Remainers, Remainers do not trust Leavers. Backbenchers do not trust the front benches, and vice versa. The government does not trust Parliament, Parliament does not trust the government. The parliamentary truce is phony and not durable.

The talk of the town in Parliament that reaches the public is “how Brexit?” The talk of the town in Parliament that, for now, does not reach the public, is how Parliament can extricate itself from the mistake it itself made in calling the referendum.

MPs fear the uproar it would create if they exercised their constitutional authority to override the referendum. However, they also recognise themselves to be caught up in a dilemma from which there is no happy outcome. The choice they see in front of them is between uproar now or long term damage to the country. What may look like a mess, is Parliament’s lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner of resolving its terrible dilemma.

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN

Parliament is moving towards preventing Britain from exiting the European Union. It is not there yet but in its lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner, that’s where it is heading.

Parliament carries the charge and responsibility of protecting the British people’s interests and well-being. It is not going to sit by and allow the country to cut its legs off. Critics of Parliament, such as myself, are often in despair of its ineffectiveness, but the historical experience is nevertheless that in the big questions, in the end, Parliament comes through.

Since the referendum, there have been huge shifts in Parliament in how to deal with the outcome. We started with the government’s determination to implement hard Brexit with minimal involvement by Parliament. Hard Brexit is now off the agenda and Parliament has asserted itself and continues to do so. It is denying the government any unambiguous mandate for how to negotiate in Brussels.

Parliament has enforced the acceptance that there must be a transition after the completion of negotiations in which Britain remains a member of the Union for some as yet not determined period. The view is strengthening that Britain must remain in the single market, which is code language for continued membership. The Norwegian solution of being part of the single market without membership of the Union – accepting the rules with no say in the making of rules – is impossible for a big country. The Labour Party has moved to the single market position, for (as they say so far) an indefinite period.

After the failed general election, there is a confusion of ambivalence in Parliament which perfectly reflects the confusion of ambivalence in the population. There are criss-crossing views in Parliament on Britain and Europe, with constellations in constant movement. In neither of the big parties are the leaderships representative of their respective parliamentary parties. Everything is in flux. Nothing is settled. Members of Parliament collude in corners and corridors day in and day out. The huge shifts we have seen so far are in continues motion.

More is known about the consequences. The argument that Brexit would be simple has been disproved. The argument that is would save money has been disproved. The argument that it would be economically costly has been proved: the British economy is now worth 10% less to the world.

The risks have been clarified. Trade and investments will suffer. The union will break up: Brexit will give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to carry the day. These risks may or may not sway public opinion but in Parliament they matter.

Can Parliament overrule the majority in the referendum? It is no simple matter for it to so do and it will, to put it carefully, be problematic. But, referendum or not, Parliament carries the final responsibility.

Parliament has the formal right to overrule the referendum. Constitutionally speaking, the referendum was advisory. In the British constitutional tradition, Parliament is sovereign and that sovereignty was maintained in Parliament’s remit for the referendum.

It also has the moral right. It has obeyed the referendum and started the process. That has moved us on. The facts have changed. Matters have been clarified. We know more. Parliament has a duty to deal with the world as it is and is not bound to dealing with it as it was.

The emotive language following the referendum is “the will of the people.” But there is no single “will of the people.” The population is divided, even in the referendum pretty equally. It is for Parliament to work itself through divisions in the population towards a reasoned position in which it pays heed not only to the (small) majority and the (large) minority in the referendum but also to the interests that were not reflected in the referendum, notably of the young who (regrettably) did not vote in the numbers they should have.

THE BRITISH ELECTION: DEMOCRACY WORKS!

Britain is in existential crisis. The union is in danger of breaking up. The country is exiting the European project of partnership. The duty of the government of the day in difficult times is to guide nation and people through. This government has instead tried to manipulate the crisis for party political gain and in defiance of its own population. That population has struck back to deny the government its reckless “mandate.” Democracy is a brutal affair. Governments that do not do the people’s work are supposed to be punished. It is democracy at work when they are.

It’s all about Brexit. The referendum settled the question of membership or not: Britain has decided to leave the European Union. But it settled nothing else, nothing about the terms of exit. All matters about Britain’s future relations to the EU are for Parliament to decide (as far as Britain is concerned).

The government, however, created a narrative according to which the referendum had also settled the terms of exit, a hard Brexit narrative. That narrative has no basis in the population which is divided down the middle on hard vs. soft Brexit. It then triggered an election in a scheme to get a majority in Parliament to allow itself to pursue its own Brexit without scrutiny. That was an attempted elective coup – and the electorate has rightly struck it down.

Before the snap election, the government had a majority in Parliament but not so much of a majority that it would not have to accommodate a range of opinions on how to take Brexit forward. That was a good political constellation for the nation in the circumstances. It was conducive to a compromise line on Brexit, corresponding to and respecting the deep divisions in the population on the matter, and to a cautious process under Parliamentary oversight. It was a godsend for a leader of stature to take the population as much as possible along in a difficult transition.

But that was not enough for this government. It turned on the people, lecturing them that it had the right to do Brexit on its own terms and that they had a duty to give it the “mandate” it demanded. Opposing views on the terms of Brexit were to be disqualified from influence.

It is a good day for democracy when the people punish a government that tries to subjugate them.

Of course, there are reasons why there is an existential crisis to manage in the first place, and those reasons are political. Britain was plunged into crisis by the unnecessary decision of then Prime Minister David Cameron to trigger the Brexit referendum (and before that the Scottish referendum). This was a gamble in which there was everything to lose and nothing to win, and a gigantic moral and political mistake. In triggering the snap election – another unnecessary election which I at the time described as “abusive” – Prime Minister Theresa May exasperated the crisis with another moral and political mistake.

Of course also, there are reasons why such grave mistakes could be made. Both the referendum and the snap election had to be ratified by Parliament. In both cases, the House of Commons did that in rapid knee-jerk fashion without putting any work into the decisions before it and their consequences, without giving itself any time for reflection and without anything like proper deliberation and debate.

So what we have here is a story of leadership failure under two prime ministers and of decision-making failure under a House of Commons that does not do its job. But also a story of the glory of democracy. When there are free and fair elections, in the end the people decide and cannot be taken for granted.