Brexit Has Exposed Britain’s ‘Rotten State’. Let’s Fix It
Utopianism should be of no interest to anyone who is serious about politics. The secret lies in the pun. The Tudor neologism - from the ancient Greek - means both “good world” (eu) and “not world” (ou). Thomas More was speaking as much about the impossibilities of invented worlds as their possibilities.
There is no such thing as perfection in democratic politics. However, as we look at British politics today, even Brexiters must agree that we can do better.
A large proportion see the referendum as one called on the basis of Conservative Party divisions, and the result as illegitimate.
The Brexit press now regularly uses what is essentially fascistic (a word I am not usually given to using) language in order to intimidate dissenters. Parliament has always had rebels. The Lords have always been an inconvenience for governments. Never before have either been treated as now.
In a democracy, few things are more important than how we make decisions and the environment in which those decisions are taken. Both need to change.
Never again can the British people vote have the option of the status quo or a leap in the dark
Britain needs a referendum act. Although many have been put off direct democracy, it is now a feature of British democracy.
The first line of that act should be to state that Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Referendums are an extraordinary way to test public opinion in certain circumstances.
Three other areas for reform: there ought to be criteria for when extra plebiscites are allowed; never again can the British people vote have the option of the status quo or a leap in the dark; the process needs to be slowed down.
It is extraordinary to think that David Cameron returned with his renegotiation deal in February, and four months later the country voted. If we slowed down the process, we could allow the Electoral Commission greater access to rival campaign to ensure they operate on level playing field throughout the campaign.
The EU referendum was an example of how noisy democracy can be. The same could be said for last year’s general election. We need less noise, and greater reflection in our democratic space. At the moment campaigning on polling day is forbidden. Why not extend that period to three days? A period to reflect, disseminate all the information.
There is little we can do to stop dishonesty. A lie is often a matter of perspective. We can increase the punishment for those who abuse our democracy though. If spokespeople were as responsible as backroom staff and agents, they might be more responsible when chatting to Andrew Marr.
The Leave side presented themselves as an alternative government. Yet there were other campaign groups too. How do we square this? It is quite frankly absurd to argue that Brexiters have a carte blanche because of the referendum. Mandates are complicate. Mrs Thatcher was elected on 1987 but few wanted the poll tax. People expect parliament to debate the issue afdterwards - they still do. Perhaps the solution is to give both official campaigns access to the civil service as opposition parties are given before elections. Perhaps post-referendum general elections should be required when important votes change government policy.
Most of all, in a hyper-tribal world how do we maintain faith that our elections are free and fair? How can bodies such as the Electoral Commision declare them so in the age of the internet, Russian cyberbots and Cambridge Analytica?
It seems unlikely that the Brexit referendum was stolen. It will hang under a cloud. Our elections and campaign laws need constant updates.
Some of this has happened: the Prime Minister did call a general election at which she failed to obtain a parliamentary majority. No law can stop a politician from pretending that they have a mandate when they do not.
What politics can do is to stop the bullying from the supporting actors of the fourth estate.
2016 showed the cabalistic corruption of the Brexit press. Like President Trump on Twitter, what they say has huge influence on the fragile nature of democratic institutions.
It is no longer a question of how we maintain a free press, it is a question of how we achieve one again. Too much of the debate about the free press is focused on government inference as if there weren’t other threats. Even Mrs Thatcher imposed conditions on Rupert Murdoch when he bought The Times in 1981.
Press reform should not just focus on those who have large market shares - such as News UK and DMGT who combined hold over 50% of the market - but operate under the principle that the greater the market share the greater the obligation.
Brexit revealed the unaccountable power of editors and proprietors. Well then - let’s make that power accountable. To protect a free press from proprietors, companies that owned over 15% of the market could be obliged to include a beefed-up press regulator in all editorial appointments.
Newspapers received a host of benefits including exemption from VAT: why not link structural changes to the way editorial policy is formed to VAT? Take the power away from editors and give it to journalists. If journalists had the power to sack editors, Paul Dacre might become a bit less haughty.
Independently-written public interest agreements - akin promises made by previous proprietors to previous governments - that put journalistic and editorial ethics at their heart could ensure a proper fourth estate that attacked dishonesty wherever it came from without tearing down our democratic institutions.
Reform should be led independent of government. Its objective a free press and a healthy democracy.
Forget Brexit or Remain. Forget Labour or Tory
A proper democratic House of Lords that commands respect - perhaps selected by lot; formal mechanisms that force the House of Commons to consult the regional parliaments on big decisions; greater power for MPs to sack ministers when prime ministers are too weak to do so; end the monopoly governments have over legislation.
There are a thousand small ideas we could implement to ensure a less rotten politics.
Forget Brexit or Remain. Forget Labour or Tory. Politics todays shows how we can extract ourselves from this abyss. It is Parliament where there is a majority across parties that is forcing Theresa May to shift on the Customs Union.
We need another alliance that looks at the problems of British politics then comes up with practical solutions for the future.
It is not Utopia. It is better than that.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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