The turmoil of the last two or three years has been distressing and confusing for many people, but it has at least exposed the inadequacies of our current political system to a much wider audience. Many who previously didn’t question how our country is governed now recognise that, whatever happens with Brexit, we need fundamental change, not just in our relationship with Europe but also in the way our domestic politics works.
So why, in all the discussion of a People’s Vote, does everyone assume it must be all about our membership of the EU?
Many of the staunchest advocates of a People’s Vote do press the need for broad reform. But the general line is that we should get Brexit behind us and then talk about the deeper problems. What they’re saying, in effect, is that we should restore the status quo (the status quo that leavers have rejected) and then get down to tackling all the issues that … well, that reformers have been talking about for years, without being listened to.
It’s no wonder there’s so much resistance to the idea. Any poll that simply pits remaining in the EU against some kind of Brexit is bound to be seen as a re-run of the 2016 vote. And, whatever the result, it will inevitably leave huge swathes of the population feeling let down or betrayed. The public knows that and most MPs know it – and that’s why so many of them are reluctant to go for it.
It doesn’t have to be like that, though. There’s no reason at all why the options in a second referendum can’t be between Brexit (in whatever form Parliament finally agrees on) and a process of domestic reform, leaving open the question of our membership of the EU until more fundamental problems have been addressed.
What sense does it make to try and settle the Brexit question first? The UK’s relationship with its European neighbours does not stand alone, divorced from all other factors; it’s part of a broader question of how sovereignty should be shared between different levels of society, a question that also takes in the union between the four countries of the United Kingdom, and the relationship between local and central government generally – both of which have been sources of huge dissatisfaction for many years.
When people feel their voices are not being heard and their local communities have no real autonomy, it’s no surprise that they feel resentment towards remote administrations whose workings they know little about. For years, though, national politicians have denied local authorities proper control over local matters, and deflected blame for their own failings onto the EU.
How much was the result of the 2016 vote really about Europe, and how much was it driven by a more general sense of powerlessness? There were only two options on the ballot paper, one which meant keeping the status quo and one which meant a major change that most of the political establishment were opposed to. So, if you were deeply dissatisfied with the status quo and didn’t feel any real connection to the EU, which way would you have voted? Against the status quo, of course. Why wouldn’t you?
Clearly, there are a lot of people who are genuinely hostile to our membership of the EU. But the referendum result doesn’t give us any way of knowing how many. It doesn’t give any way of distinguishing between those who voted to leave because they genuinely care about that specific issue and those who voted leave because they just want some kind of change.
If the current turmoil is really about something else, something deeper, then withdrawing from the European Union won’t solve anything. If anything, it will just make things worse. Leaving the EU, with or without a deal, will absorb so much political and administrative energy that there will be none to spare, for the foreseeable future, for addressing the deeper flaws in the way we are governed. If some deeper resentment is being projected onto the issue and, actually, relatively few people are really hostile to our membership, then going ahead with Brexit is simply going to compound the underlying problems.
Equally, though, attempts to restore the status quo, with nebulous promises of future reform, are not going to appease the millions whose votes, for once, have shaken the political establishment out of its normal complacency. A large part of their frustration comes from years of hearing promises that their concerns will be addressed, promises that, over and over again, fail to materialise. Right now, though, the threat of Brexit creates an opportunity for real change – even if it might not be the change that most would actually prefer – and leavers know that, if that threat is removed, any promised reform will be diluted so far that it will end up being worthless.
The only practical way forward now, as far as I can see, would be a thorough review of our existing political system, a review that the public could be sure would lead to change. It could be offered in a confirmatory referendum as an alternative to Parliament’s preferred Brexit or, if it became clear that the Brexit option wouldn’t get much support, Parliament could initiate it directly, and the Article 50 notification could simply be revoked.
Either way, for that to happen, MPs need to accept that they might not be the right people to decide on fundamental constitutional questions. How could they be? They were elected to deal with all the normal operational aspects of government that make up the substance of everyday political life. Constitutional questions only rarely become urgent but, when they do, as they have now, they need to be considered apart from normal issues. And they call for a different, more detached perspective than what is needed to oversee the ordinary business of government.
Exactly how such a process would work would need hammering out, particularly on how the public could have confidence that it wasn’t just another way of sweeping the problems under the carpet.
At this time, what I think we need is a different type of General Election, an election of a Constitutional Parliament, to sit for a limited period of time – eighteen months perhaps – to debate and legislate on a narrow range of constitutional issues. Those issues would, of course, include the question of how sovereignty should be shared between different levels (which would cover the question of how much could be ceded by treaty to supra-national bodies like the EU and the UN). They would also have to include two other important areas which the last two years have shown to be thoroughly inadequate: how and when the will of the people should be determined, and what rules should govern the relationship between the different branches of government.
Would MPs vote for such an innovative approach? They almost certainly wouldn’t have done even a month ago but it now looks likely that, come October, we will approach the cliff-edge for a third time with no viable solution in sight. Just maybe a majority of MPs might see this as the only way of avoiding catastrophe.