I expected a Leave victory to come as a severe shock, and a fundamental psychological as well as political challenge, to many people in Westminster. The prospect of millions of voters bluntly intruding on an echo chamber, to overturn what some had assumed to be a permanent consensus so obviously correct that it was mad to even question it, was never going to be easy.
So I never thought that accepting the outcome, adapting to it, implementing it and then moving beyond it would be simple or brief, particularly for the MPs who would have to actually put it into practice. It would produce grief, and rage, and at worst those emotions would be made flesh in abuse targeted at voters and attempts to obstruct Brexit. Even at best, we would still have to go through a discomforting period in which we discovered the degree to which the Parliamentary establishment had been infantilised by years of giving away Westminster’s powers.
Even I did not anticipate the severity of the problems which a Leave vote would expose, however. Just look at the state Parliament is in.
A Speaker who ignores the conventions of the House when it suits him, then refuses arbitrarily to table amendments he dislikes. Ministers who disobey three-line whips, but expect to retain office. A Secretary of State summing up in favour of a motion, then voting against it. A Prime Minister who promises the House and the nation something more than 50 times then proposes the opposite. A Commons that votes to trigger a timed and definite Article 50 process, then spends much of the period in question bemoaning the possibility of its own decision coming to pass. A House of Lords which disregards its constitutional limits to prioritise its own desires. Politicians who vote to hold a referendum, then pledge to honour its outcome, only to campaign ardently to run it all again – and who then won’t vote to do so when their own proposal comes before the Commons. The term “meaningful vote” being coined, then applied to votes which can be – and are – ignored and run repeatedly.
And that’s just the last few weeks. The wider picture of Parliamentary politics is little better. The Government’s mishandling of the EU negotiations, the Opposition’s endlessly shifting view of what it supposedly wants to happen, radical independents striking out for more democracy while refusing to hold by-elections, Eurosceptics blundering from one strategic mis-step to another…
All the while, the citizens who combined to deliver the biggest vote for anything in our nation’s history are left wondering why it is so hard simply to keep a promise.
They might, as some have suggested, take their votes elsewhere, potentially even to troubling and extreme opportunists, but the real tragedy is that many may simply give up voting. It breaks my heart to think of the people on whose doors I knocked, who told me there was no point voting – that politicians would never listen, and would never allow the electorate to get what they wanted rather than what MPs believed they needed. I argued that voting counted in our country, that if enough people voted then Westminster would have to listen. And yet now, years later, many MPs are still doing their level best to avoid doing so, and others who at least want to keep their promises are nonetheless failing to get the job done.
The more desperately politicians thrash and kick, and twist and bend, in the desperate hope of getting what they want, and damn honour, voters or consequences, the more harm they do to the fabric and reputation of our democracy. Some cannot see that, which is bad enough, but some surely can and do not care, which is far worse.
The continuity Remain response to this, of course, is that we should cancel Brexit. That due to the damage threatened by their insistence that they must get what they want at all costs, they should…get what they want. How much easier, they argue, to simply creep back under the EU’s wing, where all these troubling questions and shameful shortfalls would never have to be considered again.
That isn’t a serious or viable answer. Ignoring problems does not make them go away, it simply allows them to fester out of sight. Anyone who saw the rise of anti-politics in the decade preceding the referendum, and then the outcome of the referendum result itself, should realise that stripping Westminster of responsibilities has deepened rather than banished popular dissatisfaction with sub-par Members of Parliament. The more you treat people – MPs included – like children, the more they will act childishly..
The Leave vote was the first true increase in responsibility for British Parliamentarians in at least 40 years. It has proved to be a bigger shock to their system than many people expected, and many of our politicians – and the structures around them – have struggled to adapt to it. I suspect that few people, beyond perhaps Dominic Cummings, had realised how far things had declined.
None of this amounts to a case against democratic self-government. If anything, it shows the consequences of releasing a political class from many of the demands and challenges of proper responsibility and accountability. If you started a diet and a workout regime, but found out you weighed more and were more out of shape than you had thought, that wouldn’t be a reason to give up – it would be a reason to knuckle down and work harder. If our politics is struggling to adapt, we must find out why, and set it right.