Sunday, 31 July 2016

Brexit is only the beginning if we want democracy

Pretty much the last thing I want to do on a Sunday night after a superb weekend is write about Brexit. And I suppose for the time being there is very little point. We are in a phoney war. War has been declared and not a shot has been fired as yet. In the meantime everybody has an opinion, everyone's an expert and anyone trying to compete with the volume of white noise is wasting their breath.

Ideally there should be a movement making demands of the government and specifying what Brexit should mean and what we want thereafter. We don't have that. Ukip has folded, the Vote Leave campaign has nothing of value to offer and others are busy fetishising Article 50.

Some have it that the government has been given an instruction to leave and should get on with it but without a movement pushing a strong definition of outcomes which satisfy the reasons for leaving we will watch helplessly as Brexit is defined for us. 

As it happens, I now think that is exactly what will happen. There is no such movement and there is no time to build one with coherent ideas and even if we could, a grassroots movement would have no particular leverage. When it comes to Brexit, leavers are as diverse in their incomprehension as economists. There are many debates with no real conclusions. There is not going to be a common agreement on how to proceed.

The central reason for this is a simplistic idea of what can be achieved and this is largely a result of a shallow understanding of how far EU integration has gone. The EU is not a trading arrangement with a few tacked on extras. It is a government and it is one that governs systems, products and services which didn't even exist in 1975. People seem to think that by walking away from the EU we walk away from technicalities, bureaucracy and complications. Not so. The world does not get any simpler just for being out of the EU.

It seems that campaigners want to reduce any action to a single sentiment like "Invoke Article 50 now", but all that does is start the clock ticking. It doesn't say what out looks like and it gives sole authority to government to define it.

But there's another problem. Even if we could agree on demands for Brexit we have a political establishment which is largely deaf to the possibilities and sees the Brexit negotiations as an exercise in damage control. Their need is to satisfy the literal criteria of being out of the EU without disrupting their grand schemes or distracting them from their preferred displacement activity. 

They could attempt to subvert the Brexit process in full view of the public but that would ensure the issue would grind on for years. Their way to settle this is to agree a Brexit In Name Only (BINO). As much as that satisfies the base criteria it also parks the issue. I will go as far as saying it is a near certainty that this is how they will do it. If not through malevolence then through incompetence, lack of vision and lack of political will. 

Many in our political establishment see no advantages to leaving the EU and the advantages put forth by Vote Leave and Ukip are largely illusory. The benefits of Brexit thus far appear to be largely fantasy proposals along with some less tangible effects on public discourse. The latter may be encouraging but we can't go to the bank with it. 

In the end though, I think it incompetence that will deliver a BINO we have a number of hardline leavers who exert just enough influence to force the government's hand in negotiation for an unrealistic mode of exit which will waste crucial runtime leaving us with only a very short time to agree an emergency transitional agreement. This will be stacked in the EU's favour as any extension will be thanks to the good graces of member states. They will be in no mood to loiter while we get our act together. Another good reason for taking our time in invoking Article 50.

The problem with that is that a transitional agreement means the onus is on the government to continue the transition process. Some of it will necessarily require continued divergence but some areas of policy could, without external impetus, stay exactly as they are. That is where we need a new movement to keep up momentum.

That said, it is one thing to demand "action now" but with a political establishment so well insulated from ideas from the outside, they will not make a move unless there are better ideas. But here we add another problem. Some things are settled at the European level because there is little sense or value in doing them any other way. 

To "take back control" of certain things would add very little value so any new movement is going to have to think long and hard about what they actually want in the longer run. And if they want to be listened to they will have to come up with the goods on how to do it. This is what Vote Leave should have done, but instead of pushing a plan, they have folded and vanished into the woodwork leaving an ideas vacuum.

All of us want to see real momentum on this and the word on everyone's lips is "democracy" but the act of simply leaving the EU does not achieve this. By leaving the EU without a destination in mind we are simply exchanging one remote technocracy for another with only marginally more influence over it. Brexit alone does not address what many feel is wrong with our politics. 

So what's to be done? For starters we can abandon any hope of influencing the Brexit process. We're out of time and the path before us is depressingly predictable. Technical and legal reality will force us into an annexe of the EEA with perhaps a nod to the desire to control freedom of movement and Brexit will probably turn into a lame duck where most people struggle to notice any difference at all. 

We will see a few domestic measures aimed at boosting the morale of the public to make them feel like they have been listened to and when combined with the fact that on paper we will have left the EU many will buy into the illusion. After that the political pressure dissipates. The opportunity is already wasted. So it seems to me we really need to start asking what happens after we sign our Article 50 settlement. Here it will become apparent just how little Brexit solves. 

There are differing opinions of what Britain should evolve into afterwards. It seems the primary reason for leaving is wanting some control over the laws that affect us - but there is no clear idea of what that actually means. Most technocratic law does not really affect us in any noticeable way. There is just a feeling of unease that government is a business done without our consent so what we should be looking at is a two pronged movement. One which deals with the technical evolution out of the EU based on a broader vision and one which addresses the core of the problem. The basic lack of democracy.

This is where The Harrogate Agenda comes in. It is one thing to recover powers from the EU but the power still then resides with the remote political class in Wesminster over whom we have only limited checks and balances. As much as we need extensive democratic reforms we need measures in places to ensure they do not again take us into projects like the EU without our consent.

More than anything Brexit is about power. Who has it and who wields it. Our objective is to recover power and once we ourselves, the people, hold the power, we can then attend to the many problems and injustices that plague modern society. But without power, there is only protest – and we achieve nothing of any lasting value. 

To help us acquire power, we are adopting the original strategy of the Chartists. Like them, we felt it was vital to frame a very limited number of achievable demands – six in number. These are listed below.
1. Recognition of our sovereignty: The peoples of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland comprise the ultimate authority of their nations and are the source of all political power. That fact shall be recognised by the Crown and the Governments of our nations, and our Parliaments and Assemblies;
2. Real local democracy: The foundation of our democracy shall be the counties (or other local units as may be defined), which shall become constitutional bodies exercising under the control of their peoples all powers of legislation, taxation and administration not specifically granted by the people to the national government;
3. Separation of powers: The executive shall be separated from the legislature. To that effect, prime ministers shall be elected by popular vote; they shall appoint their own ministers, with the approval of parliament, to assist in the exercise of such powers as may be granted to them by the sovereign people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; no prime ministers or their ministers shall be members of parliament or any legislative assembly;
4. The people’s consent: No law, treaty or government decision shall take effect without the consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that none shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people;
5. No taxation or spending without consent: No tax, charge or levy shall be imposed, nor any public spending authorised, nor any sum borrowed by any national or local government except with the express approval the majority of the people, renewed annually on presentation of a budget which shall first have been approved by their respective legislatures;
6. A constitutional convention: Parliament, once members of the executive are excluded, must host a constitutional convention to draw up a definitive codified constitution for the peoples of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It shall recognise their sovereign status and their inherent, inalienable rights and which shall be subject to their approval.
These are the kind of reforms we need to see. Ambitious and sweeping. Exhortations like "invoke democracy now" is a meaningless slogan. It is merely a command to instigate Brexit. But Brexit alone does not achieve a fundamental alteration to the status quo. It gives us a few more tools but restoring power back to Wesminster still leaves the power in the hands of the few. 

More to the point, it is this kind of campaign where ordinary people can make an impact. Much of the thinking that should have been done about how we steer Brexit has been neglected and it is only now people are turning their attention to it. It's already too late. But after we leave we can capitalise on the momentum and we can convert Brexit into something more meaningful. The field is presently wide open for new and radical ideas.

In the meantime we won't see anything imaginative from the usual players. Various think tanks and pressure groups will propose yet more tinkering with the House of Lords and yet another pointless tweak to the voting system. This does not address the fundamental fault with our so called democracy. We can tinker with the voting system til the cows come home but it still means electing a drongo MP to execute power on our behalf. It is a modern day feudalism. What we can have instead is a vibrant democracy where the kind of participation we saw during the referendum will be a permanent feature of politics - where public debate actually influences the decision making.

We can have all the meetings we like about Brexit between now and the act of leaving but since there is no movement we are wasting our time. If we wanted to shape Brexit we needed to have done the thinking a decade ago. Now though, is the time for thinking about how we really do take back control so that we have the powers to undo what the government does to us in the Article 50 negotiations.

Anybody who though Brexit was the end of it is sorely mistaken. It will take twenty years or more to leave the EU and another twenty before we get anything like reform. But that only happens if there is a movement with focussed demands and attractive ideas. Without that, we are just talking amongst ourselves for no real purpose. 

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