speri.comment: the political economy blog

Brexit Britain and undemocracy: an epilogue

Paradoxically, the snap election is a further nail in the coffin of actually-existing British democracy – and reinforces the role of Brexit in the revival of conservative statecraft

Craig Berry, Deputy Director at SPERI

Craig BerryTheresa May’s decision to call a snap election for June continues Britain’s descent towards ‘undemocracy’, a trend crystallised in the 2016 EU referendum.  While the notion of ‘post-democracy’ signals the marginalisation of democratic processes within the policy-making machinery of Western societies, undemocracy invites ‘the people’ back into politics to collaborate in their own subjugation.

Accordingly, the result of the EU referendum – an inherently crude and simplifying expression of democratic will – is now used with little restraint to override all other democratic mechanisms in the British polity, as the political elite reconfigures itself to take advantage of new political-economic realities.

The snap election is a leaf taken from the same book.  In simple terms, there is no need for an early election to rubber-stamp Brexit: an outcome favouring the status quo is a foregone conclusion, and the official opposition tacitly supports the government’s approach to EU withdrawal.

In practice, and paradoxically, the election will be used to circumvent democracy.  May’s remarks in announcing the election made clear that the election is not considered an exercise in determining the electorate’s views, in order to formulate a governing mandate, but rather in ensuring that a self-declared mandate for Brexit can be delivered without hindrance.

All of May’s reasons for calling the election now – seemingly against her own naturally cautious instincts – relate to the circumvention of conventional democratic processes.  She is seeking to kick Labour while it is down.  She knows the party will be no threat to any of her core policy ambitions; her objective now is to ensure that Labour effectively ceases to function as a parliamentary opposition in any meaningful way.

There is also the matter of impending charges against the Conservative Party and several of its MPs for electoral fraud related to the 2015 general election.  The snap election will not thwart the legal process, but it will annul the possibility of embarrassing re-run elections in the constituencies affected, consigning to the realm of historical curiosity the suggestion that the party’s 2015 victory might have been achieved illicitly.

Above all, an election victory now, in the name of delivering Brexit, will give May the space she needs to significantly soften her position on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.  It is becoming abundantly clear that single market access of any degree would have been impossible to achieve without concessions around free movement, budget contributions and European Court of Justice jurisdiction. Indeed, a deal of any kind would have been difficult to achieve before the next mandatory election was scheduled to have taken place in 2020, given the remaining EU’s insistence on settling the terms of withdrawal before a new trade relationship is discussed.

The crucial point, for our purposes, is that another massive exercise in democratic expression will be the mechanism used to further entrench the ability of a reconfigured political elite to interpret and implement the apparent will of the people as they see fit, at the same time defining a mandate to suit the populist zeitgeist, and marginalising the specific concerns that the Brexit vote gave expression to for many parts of the electorate.

Alas, the Conservative manifesto will probably include no detail on the Brexit compromises to come; indeed it will in all likelihood deny the very possibility of compromise, orchestrating a political fraud with far more ominous implications than those resulting from the alleged expenses fraud at the last election.

The emergence of undemocracy in Britain is of course related to the widespread rise of populist politics throughout Western societies.  But it has peculiarly British characteristics.  For instance, that populism manifests here as anti-European sentiment should not surprise us.

In economic terms, the short term impact of Brexit will be significant, but probably not seismic.  Its greatest impact will be in vindicating a conservative revival in British political culture and norms of statecraft.  The protestant ethos of British conservatism – one of the traits that enabled a marriage of convenience with the individualist doctrine of neoliberalism – has long been set in contrast to the continent; only Europe’s apparent crime is now one of liberal inter-governmentalism, rather than Catholicism.

The influence of the Church of England is very much identifiable in the politics of the vicar’s daughter.  She took time out of a recent visit to Saudi Arabia to join Church leaders in condemning the National Trust for removing the word ‘Easter’ from the name of its annual Easter egg hunt (having sold the naming rights to American-owned brand Cadbury’s).  Tellingly, the incident was also an opportunity for May to embarrass an old enemy in Trumpian fashion; Helen Ghosh, the permanent secretary she fought with at the Home Office under the coalition government, is now the Trust’s chief executive.  The politics of populism and personal enmity are never very far apart.

We must see this conservative turn not as a new phenomenon, but rather the revival of ideals deeply-rooted in the British polity, wrapped up in deference to monarchy and nostalgia for empire.  Civil servants have apparently coined the term ‘Empire 2.0’ to ridicule the notion, at the heart of the May agenda, of a ‘global Britain’ centred on the Commonwealth.  But the pseudo-imperialist sentiment of British exceptionalism runs very deep in the national psyche.

(We should not be surprised to see significant churn in the top ranks of the civil service after the election, as May assumes a mandate to marginalise the cohort of senior civil servants nurtured under New Labour.)

It is interesting also, especially from a democratic perspective, to see the English local elections (due to take place on 4th May) completely over-ridden by the general election timetable.  At a time when anxieties around ‘place’ are evident in many areas of political life, May is probably right to worry about the possibility of local government – especially following the implementation of George Osborne’s metro-mayor model – representing a rival in terms of democratic legitimacy.  Brexit is being used to re-establish Westminster as the centre of political authority in both formal and informal terms.

While Westminster has means by which to leash English local government, Scotland is a different story.  In his recent book The End of British Politics?, Michael Moran notes that it was the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, and its Protestant underpinnings, which gave birth to the centralised, elitist and imperialist British state.  Three centuries on, it is no coincidence that May is holding an unnecessary general election only weeks after denying Nicola Sturgeon a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Indeed, the Conservatives are expected to win a handful of seats away from the Scottish National Party (SNP), under the popular leadership of May’s fellow remainer-cum-Brexiter Ruth Davidson.  (The SNP is of course also a manifestation of populism, with an ambivalent relationship with democratic principles; they have simply been beaten back, for now, by a bigger bully.)

This is not an election, rather an inoculation: just a little democracy now so that there is no danger of catching a more virulent strain of democracy later.

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Comments (1)

  1. Nice post. Gorgeous last line.

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