BY BRADLEY ALLSOP
More than a week on and in post-Brexit Britain, we have taken our country back. The hands of arrogant and aloof politicians have been prised off our political processes, bureaucratic procedures as arcane as they are opaque have been sacrificed on the altar of freedom and democracy once more takes centre stage in shaping our country’s future…
The political soap opera that currently dominates our headlines betrays Brexit promises for the hollow myths they were. Both major UK political parties are in crisis and both crisis’ stem from the machinations of the political elite, standing far removed from the debates the country wants or needs. In the words of Shehab Khan, writing for the Independent earlier this week “Not one potential ‘leader’ is prepared to put their country before their career”. It is becoming clearer by the day that there are far greater forces aligned against our democracy than banana-straightening Europhiles.
On one hand you have a Conservative leadership contest looking awfully like a Game of Thrones finale, with contestants matching Walder Frey in treachery, Aerys Targyaraen in authoritarianism and the High Sparrow in homophobia. As if this weren’t bad enough, less than half of this delightful bunch will even get to be put to an all-member vote, with the ‘influential’ (read ‘undemocratic’) 1922 Committee continuing their century-long service to the party by making sure members do not get overwhelmed with too many names on the ballot. Whoever wins this depressing contest isn’t even obliged to call a general election or involve anyone else in Brexit negotiations- we merely have to rely on their good will to do so, something that hasn’t worked out well for teachers or foreign students in the recent past.
We stand equally transfixed by the coup unfolding on the other side of the Commons, extraordinary both in its timing and in its failure. Irony is very much lost on Corbyn’s would-be topplers as they justify their coup with vague platitudes to ‘unelectability’ and ‘lack of leadership’, whilst simultaneously failing to gain the support of a wider audience within the party and with none of their number willing to take the man on in a democratic contest. This abysmal coup is reactionary at its heart, borne of the twin desires to shift the party rightwards once more and to do this by ignoring the expressed wishes of the majority of the membership of the party.
The common thread that links these two battles is how irrelevant they are to ordinary Britons. They are the machinations of the elites, the outpourings of their own rivalries, disputes and ambitions, and are utterly devoid of altruistic concern for Britain or its people. In what should be a radical period of unprecedented public engagement in shaping the future of this country, we are left once more as spectators to the great game, watching elites set the agenda and carve out their own fiefdoms as the country suffers both socially and economically.
This gives us a hint in understanding the problem with how the EU was structured. It placed the need for national sovereignty over and above the direct enfranchisement of EU citizens- it focused on the collaboration of states, assuming them to be a legitimate proxy for the interests of the people they represent. What this meant was that when states met to negotiate around the European table, heads of state or those appointed by them were (in theory at least) negotiating for a people that was unable to properly scrutinise them (or even know they were negotiating on their behalf), hold them to account, or even have a say as to whether they wanted someone else at the table representing them instead. The European Parliament, the only chamber to represent the people, was left playing a secondary role to the other governing bodies of the EU, leaving voters at home feeling far too removed and unrepresented. In a twist of irony that will surely have historic reverberations, the EU’s attempts to retain an element of national sovereignty were what eventually led to its downfall via a surge in nationalist sentiment.
Part of the problem, in Britain at least, stems from the fact that we have no direct say on who our Prime Minister is, let alone their Cabinet. General elections are a confusion between electing a local MP to protect your local interests, deciding which party you want to have the overall majority in the national legislative body and deciding who you want to be in charge of the executive- who you want to be Prime Minister. What if you love the policies of a party, but despise their local candidate in your area? Or love the candidate but cringe at the thought of their leader representing the country on the global stage? In a system that places ‘strong governance’ (no matter how inept its decisions) as key and parliament (not the people) as sovereign, you’ll just have to lump it.
Genuinely ‘taking our country back’ would mean changing the Lords to an elected second chamber (and changing the damned name too) and scrapping the monarchy and replacing it with an elected head of state that also wrests some control of the executive from whoever happens to be leader of the largest parliamentary party. Placing the selection of parliamentary candidates far more firmly in the hands of party members, as well as leadership elections, would avoid situations where MP’s can become dangerously out of touch with their grass roots members and backbench committees can rule out candidates before they even reach the ballot.
It would also mean wresting control of our media from the hands of a small cadre of billionaires, who brazenly lie to and consistently mislead the public. It would mean reigning in the actions of an unleashed financial sector, with democratically chosen representatives regulating this industry’s actions and tools to ensure they are working sustainably for the people, not private profit and not risking financial meltdown. It would mean pushing forward the frontiers of democracy to allow local people control over their own natural resources, devolving more power to regions and local councils and giving workers a larger say in the decisions of the companies they work for. Brexit has given us none of this, and worse than that, the debate in its aftermath is being dominated by a political elite so self-absorbed that such notions never even cross their minds.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the people of Iceland directly elected a constitutional council, made up of citizens that redrafted the governing articles of their country. Undoubtedly this is easier to do in a country with the population of Coventry, but we should at least be aiming for Brexit-negotiations and post-Brexit Britain to be following this kind of ethos. It shouldn’t be up to whoever the Conservative Party decide to elect as leader to determine the foreseeable future of Britain: it should be up to all of us.
Perhaps, in the wake of such a referendum result it is a hard sell to ask people to have faith in democracy and the people, but we must. We live now in a highly malleable political climate. Currently, this is being dominated, as it always is, by political elites, but it doesn’t have to be. Join a campaigning organisation, join a political party, write a blog, start a petition, organise a demonstration, lobby for change. Brexit was the result of deep deep anger with and resentment of political elites and the system they have constructed that exploits the many for the gains of the few: it is these that we really want and need to take our country back from. We haven’t managed this yet but by doing some of the above, we might just start to.