British Politics in Chaos: Brexit and the Crisis of Representative Democracy
12 December 2018
The crisis and chaos engulfing British politics is not simply a symptom of incompetent leadership or bad policy choices. It expresses a deep crisis of representation in the political system, which Brexit did not cause, but only revealed. British elites have lost the capacity to represent societal interests and their authority has, accordingly, imploded.
The present crisis in British politics, precipitated by the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, was summed up by a recent scene in the House of Commons when a Member of Parliament seized the ceremonial mace. The mace, which is laid across the “despatch box” where ministers and their opposition counterparts speak, symbolises royal authority. Its presence signifies the reassignment of power from the monarch to the people’s elected representatives; without it, debates and legislation cannot proceed. Seizing the mace, therefore, signifies a challenge to parliamentary – especially governmental – authority, and these rare stunts typically prompt uproar. Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle took the mace in protest over the government’s decision to postpone a “meaningful vote” on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. However, having picked it up, he clearly had no idea what to do with it. He paused for a moment, looking at the Speaker, then turned around and made for the exit, where he was easily relieved of the mace by an elderly female official, who replaced it. The Speaker promptly expelled Russell-Moyle.
His cheap antics symbolise the dissolution of the British ruling elite’s political authority. Everyone can see that the government has no capacity to lead the country out of its present crisis. But equally, nor does anyone else. No one is willing or able to seize the moment. They can play-act at doing so, poking more holes in an already threadbare authority. But ultimately, they hesitate at the threshold, unable to constitute a replacement.
Disarray On All Sides
On 12 December, Tory backbenchers launched a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May. They are angry at the Brexit deal put before parliament, especially the Irish backstop. But how a leadership challenge could possibly resolve the crisis is entirely unclear. It is not even clear who would stand against May, and all of her potential rivals are even less popular than she is. Under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, a final Brexit deal must be put before Parliament by 21 January. Even the most optimistic timetable would see a new Tory leader, and ergo prime minister, installed no earlier than 14 January. So a new leader would have no more than a week to renegotiate a deal that has taken two years to reach.
More pertinently, it is patently obvious that no one can renegotiate the deal. Despite May’s excursion to the continent, the EU has repeated that the deal will not be changed and the best that can be offered are some non-binding “clarifications”, restating what we already know. These cannot win over the deal’s critics in parliament. The truth is that the choice is between May’s deal, and no deal. Tory “Brexiteers” refuse to accept this reality, banging on about technological solutions to the Irish border issue. But the EU has consistently rejected these ideas and will not accept any deal without a backstop. This has been clear for well over a year, and if anyone was in any doubt of the sort of deal May was pursuing, her Chequers proposals and White Paper clarified it entirely. Brexiteers muttered and plotted but allowed May to continue on this course. It is sheer fantasy to suggest that a new Tory leader can magically reverse the EU’s position, even if we were not at this eleventh hour. Nor would it change the parliamentary arithmetic, which makes May’s deal impossible to pass. Yet even supposedly die-hard Eurosceptics recoil from the natural conclusion that leaving the EU now means either accepting the backstop or preparing for a no-deal exit.
The opposition is in a similar shambles. Labour’s official policy is to push for a general election, yet Jeremy Corbyn persistently hesitates to table a no-confidence motion in the government, which could pave the way for a vote to dissolve parliament. This is apparently because Labour fears the motion would fall. Labour’s policy – agreed at its party conference as a compromise between Leave and Remain factions – would then transition to supporting a second referendum. Corbyn – a lifelong Eurosceptic – seems to want to avoid this shift, and so he holds back on a no-confidence motion, teetering permanently at the threshold and offering no leadership.
And yet a general election would hardly resolve the present crisis, either. Since the 2017 general election, which cost May her already-slender parliamentary majority, the polls consistently show that Conservative and Labour support remains unchanged, with Labour trailing the Tories by about two percentage points. The country is not convinced that Labour can rule, and an election could well simply reproduce the current situation of a hung parliament.
Moreover, the country is right. Labour has had nothing sensible to say about Brexit since the referendum. Its ridiculous “six tests” merely set a childish rhetorical trap for the government by establishing as a threshold for Labour support former Brexit secretary David Davis’s claim that a Brexit deal would replicate the exact same benefits as EU membership. In practice, the shabby deal negotiated by May largely meets Labour’s six tests (see Analysis #17 – Labour Stands Exposed on Brexit). But furthermore, Labour has not developed any alternative to May’s deal. If it was elected tomorrow, its ministers would go to Brussels with no clear idea of what to do. They would face the same structural barriers as May’s government, and an exasperated EU officialdom that is unwilling to simply re-start the whole process. At best, a Labour government might gain a few tweaks to May’s deal; at worst, they might plump for some “off the shelf” option like the EEA/EFTA, which would keep the UK even more closely aligned to the EU. It is totally unclear what Labour would actually promise during an election campaign.
The crisis of British representative democracy can hardly be overstated. The political elite is in total disarray, and they appear totally incapable of breaking the impasse.
The EU referendum did not cause this sorry situation; it has only exposed the already hollowed-out authority of Britain’s political establishment. Until the 1980s, it was clear who and what each party stood for: they represented distinctive interest groups in society, Labour expressing the interests of workers, and the Conservatives the party of capital and property. Since the crisis of capitalism in the 1980s, and the onset of the neoliberal era, interest representation has substantially broken down. The major parties converged on a neoliberal programme, offering no substantive choice to voters. The electorate became estranged from the parties, many ceasing to vote altogether, and elected legislators ceased to become representative.
The process of EU integration reflected and entrenched this transformation. Rather than looking to their own domestic supporters to develop societal interests into political programmes, political elites and their bureaucratic enablers increasingly looked to their European counterparts. The Maastricht Treaty and other agreements like the Stability and Growth Pact locked in a set of neoliberal policies, creating a sort of economic constitution, which removed vast swathes of governance from domestic contestation. As Perry Anderson observes, public policymaking was transformed into nineteenth-century secret diplomacy.
From this perspective, the current crisis in British politics is unsurprising, even if its scale and depth is shocking to behold. All of the mainstream political parties bought into the EU project. They became increasingly estranged from their traditional supporters, having to defend rigid neoliberal policies to their voters, rather than conveying their voters’ interests into parliament. Parties atrophied, losing their ability to develop societal interests into contending policy platforms, converting into mere electoral machines. The civil service, following their political masters, became deeply networked with their European counterparts. In this sense, the EU was “the end of politics”.
It is hardly surprising, then, that every mainstream party campaigned for Remain. Having ceased to represent British voters and offer visions for the nation’s future, they simply could not imagine a future for themselves or the country outside of the European Union. 75 percent of MPs voted to Remain, versus just 48 percent of the public – exposing their non-representativeness. The hysterical reaction to the Leave vote reflected elite panic at being torn away from European policy networks. Both sides quickly coalesced around trying to minimise the “disruption” caused by Brexit. The natural result is the current Brexit in name only.
Those attacking May personally for this outcome, and imagining things would or could have been different under another leader, are missing the deeper forces at work. Let’s not forget that during the referendum campaign the pro-Brexit right completely failed to spell out a coherent vision for the country’s future, beyond commitments to free trade deals. Or that, immediately after the referendum, the Brexiteers fell upon each other, dissolving into chaos and being unable to offer real leadership. There is no reason to suppose that has changed today. The main rival to Theresa May remains Boris Johnson, a self-interested charlatan who only backed Leave – having written articles endorsing both sides – out of a desire to boost his own career prospects, then served for two years in the same government that generated the present Withdrawal Agreement. He still clings to the patently false belief that the deal can be renegotiated and a “Canada Plus” arrangement established before March 2019. Thus, even the so-called leader of the Brexiteers recoils from offering serious leadership. The sad truth is that the manifestly incompetent Theresa May is still providing more leadership than any of her rivals, which is why she will probably survive the leadership challenge.
It is understandably tempting to respond to this chaos by demanding a second referendum to cancel Brexit, but it is deeply misguided to think that this would resolve the crisis of Britain’s representative democracy. Calling a second referendum would only underscore the void between the electorate and their so-called representatives, by declaring openly that parliament refuses to carry out the voters’ expressed wishes. This may even widen the void by demoralising millions of citizens who always suspected that voting made no difference. Indeed, effective voter suppression seems to be what the so-called People’s Vote campaign is hoping for, with their callous reminders that many Leave voters have died since 2016, and their hope that others would not turn out.
This is an extremely dangerous outcome to hope for. When citizens feel their voices are ignored, they can either withdraw into apathy, or cast protest votes, such as supporting the British National Party or the UK Independence Party. Brexit was the biggest protest vote of all. It was an acid test of whether the British political establishment will resume its proper function of representing the British people. The shambolic record of the last two years shows just how deep the rot had gone; an elite reluctant to follow the majority’s will, prevaricating and concocting a deal to minimise any change to the status quo, or actively plotting to thwart the referendum outcome. It is ludicrous to think, as some “People’s Vote” campaigners suggest, that political parties have heard the people’s cries and, if Brexit is cancelled, they will finally respond to their concerns. They are clearly unwilling to be disciplined by their own electorate, and the absurd nostalgia of ultra-Remainers for the supposed halcyon days of pre-referendum Britain betrays their own lack of a transformative vision. A second referendum would only deepen the crisis of representation, widening the gulf where populists thrive.
The EU referendum exposed the hole at the heart of our politics. It also exposed just how weak, spineless, and utterly lacking in vision are our political elites. This pulling aside of the veil was useful and necessary. It forces us to confront the true situation of political life in this country, instead of papering over the cracks and pretending all is well. But, as is often the case, confronting reality is painful. There is nothing to be gleeful about as the political establishment implodes. Those tempted by Mao’s line that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent” should think again. Mao welcomed chaos because his communist party was the only organised force poised to exploit it and seize power. In Brexit Britain, we have only the chaos; there is no organised movement of any sort capable of seizing the moment for democratic renewal. Building such a movement will be the task of many years. In the meantime, we have only tragedy and farce simultaneously.
 Peter Mair, Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013).
 Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 James Heartfield, The European Union and the End of Politics (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012).
 Lee Jones “Brexit in Name Only: Causes and Consequences”, Briefings for Brexit, 1 November 2018.
About the Authors
Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.