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Who's in Charge of Britain?

29 Aug 2019
By Dr Ben Wellings
British Bulldog. Flickr - Catrin Austin

We can no longer assume the existence of such a thing as “the British people” in the singular. Scotland, London and the Catholic-nationalist parts of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; England and Wales are deeply divided on Brexit. Meanwhile, another referendum would silence the UK’s foremost democratic institution.

Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue the Westminster parliament in the run up to the 31 October Brexit deadline has generated one fundamental question about the United Kingdom: who’s in charge?

The immediate answer to this question is that the Ultras, the true believers in a hard Brexit, have taken over. Boris Johnson’s election to the leadership of the Conservative party in July 2019 handed him the keys to 10 Downing Street whilst the removalists shifted Theresa May’s personal belongings out. The sweeping changes he made to the Cabinet the following day signalled that the time for compromise was over. Whatever the rhetoric about preferring to leave the EU with a deal, no deal was always the most likely outcome from this moment on.

This is because the group of politicians now around the cabinet table always wanted this outcome. Gone are the equivocators such as former Chancellor Philip Hammond, nicknamed “Dr No” for his generally cautious approach, who could dilute the pristine vision of the Brexiteers. For Brexit to work, runs the argument, it must be realised in its purest form, no matter the cost to all those ordinary people who voted for it (and especially those who didn’t). Unencumbered by all that easy access to food and medicine from its closest neighbours, post-Brexit Britain will be able to regain the swashbuckling spirit of the first Elizabethan era, and return happily to the nineteenth century when it practically owned the concept of free trade. Thus unchained from the European prison house of nations “Global Britain” could bestride the world stage once more like the colossus it ought to be.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is convinced by this escape forward into Britain’s past. The Conservatives themselves are divided as Brexit has bent pre-existing loyalties out of shape, placing many MPs and a smaller number of party activists into a party-versus-country dilemma. Up to 20 MPs could vote against a no deal Brexit if and when a vote of no confidence is held after they return to Westminster for a few short days on 3 September. But this would mean that any Tory rebels would have to vote for the possibility of a Corbyn-led government. None of them want to do this.

Fortunately for the Ultras their opposition is divided. Brexit has bent Labour loyalties too, between pro-EU city-based professionals and anti-EU working classes living in less affluent Labour strongholds. This has led to a policy of ambiguity from the Labour leadership that has been far from constructive and has alienated its professional support base. The resurgent Lib Dems initially rejected the possibility of working with Corbyn-led Labour, but Johnson’s’ move has re-focused their attention to a tactical anti-(no deal) Brexit alliance. The largest opposition party after Labour, the Scottish National Party, is less obtuse. It will demand another referendum as a price for cooperation, not on Brexit, but on Scottish independence.

The parliamentary constellations matter. Following a by-election loss in July, Johnson’s government has a majority of one MP in a 650-seat parliament (Sinn Fein’s abstaining MPs excluded). Thus, when it comes to providing support for the Conservative party, the ten MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, the most radical of Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties, are able to shape government policy – especially that on the contentious border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains firmly in the EU. Whereas May’s government was in charge but not in control, the DUP finds itself in control without being in charge.

One possible answer to the question of who’s in charge in the UK since the referendum of 2016 is “The People.” This is certainly how the Brexiteers have interpreted the vote, with any suggestion that the result might be questioned or not taken as a mandate for the hardest form of Brexit possible dismissed as treasonous disloyalty.

But enthroning “The People” as the ultimate sovereign raises the supplementary question of “which People” are being represented? As the parliamentary terrain suggests, we can no longer assume the existence of such a thing as “the British people” in the singular. Scotland, London and the Catholic-nationalist parts of Northern Ireland voted to remain; England and Wales are deeply divided on this issue. Britain may not yet have broken up, but the idea of Britain has.

Surely the Westminster Parliament remains as an expression of Britain. Maybe, but is it in charge? It was true that Parliament re-asserted itself from the shock of the referendum result and took back its own measure of control from a government keen to leave without the trouble of consulting the UK’s foremost representative body. But the Johnson cabinet is keen to avoid having to get bogged down in parliamentary votes and will leave the EU without seeking the consent of Parliament. This is an unusual way of bolstering democracy in the UK, one of the stated aims of the Leave campaign, but these are strange times.

We have reached this stage thanks to British political culture. Reading the referendum result through the prism of first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system, this expression of the General Will is taken to trump all other forms of democratic representation and to be a settled matter in the Brexiteer mindset. But it has been hard to resist the pressure to revisit the issue in some form.

Johnson will not want an election if it can be avoided (remember what happened in 2017 when a hubristic Conservative party lost it majority in an attempt to strengthen its bargaining position with the EU). The no deal rhetoric may well steal the Brexit Party’s thunder at a General Election, but many pro-Remain Conservative voters may well shift to the Lib Dems. This is a real risk because the ultras have taken over at a moment when polls show sustained support for remaining in the EU since October 2018. If the Labour party finds itself at the head of a government of national unity following a vote of no confidence and what will surely be one of the most divisive elections in memory, it will push for another referendum on Brexit. Remaining in the EU will be one of the two options on the ballot paper.

If that referendum were to turn up a vote to remain, we’d be looking at a 1-1 score board. Then it would go down to the political equivalent of a penalty shoot-out. In this situation, all bets would be off on the future of the United Kingdom as a political entity. In this situation, the question about who’s in charge of the UK will become moot and Boris Johnson’s’ career will become a footnote in history.

This is a case of the revolution eating itself. The UK’s foremost democratic institution will have been silenced in the name of democracy. The UK will have dissolved itself in the Brexiteers’ attempt to restore it to former greatness.

Dr Ben Wellings is an author and lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University. He is an expert on the politics of nationalism, Euroscepticism and Brexit in contemporary Europe.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.