The number of people attending the ‘People’s march’ demonstration against Brexit has been hotly contested. There is though more glaring falsity in the People’s Vote campaign’s claim that ‘1 million people from every corner of the UK came to London to March on Parliament with one demand: that the Gov’s Brexit deal is put to the people in a #PeoplesVote.’ (https://twitter.com/peoplesvote_uk/status/1111240038984179717?s=19) It was undoubtedly one of the biggest protests that has taken place in the UK and it felt like it. But my enduring impression from the day was its disunity. Rather than the usual mass produced placards bearing the names of a coalition of recognisable organisations, the abiding image was a sea of home-made signs with unique, and at times contradictory personal statements.
The only thing uniting the protestors was their opposition to the government’s horrendous mismanagement of the current situation. It was striking to see signs ridiculing the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his absence whilst cries of ‘oooh for Jeremy Corbyn’ rang out in other quarters. I spoke to a number of people who were quick to distance themselves from fellow marchers pointing out that what they really wanted was a General Election, an extension or a revocation and not a second referendum. There was still a feeling of solidarity which allowed for an atmosphere of discussion. This atmosphere must be extended to leave voters and the country at large if we are ever to move forward fruitfully.
The 23rd March demonstration in some ways echoes, the albeit more violent, protests that have erupted in Paris. France is now in its fifth republic. Five times the people have seized the reins, torn up the constitution; re-examined and re-established their system of governance. The yellow jacket movement which looks like a Delacroix painting under construction may well signal they are approaching their sixth.
A protest that began, ostensibly over fuel taxes, has ballooned to include demands for minimum wages, ecological protections and pension reform. Protestors come from all ideological quarters; from Marxists to Neo-Nazis and their demands have been unclear. Early attempts to control the voice of the movement have been promising and focused on reformulating political power; outlawing lobbying and wider public consultation are high on this list of demands put forward by a large section of protestors (https://friedemannwo.wordpress.com/2018/12/09/manifesto-the-demands-of-the-yellow-vests/). But there is no guarantee it is these voices that will continue to take centre stage.
The same movement in the UK has been successfully co-opted by far right forces. The first copy-cat march brought together disparate members from anti-austerity lobbies to far right factions. However yellow reflective jackets have quickly become the fashion choice of the latter. The UK movement has now been synonymised with James Goddard. Goddard was recently arrested for racist harassment and made headlines for promoting violence and threatening journalists. The difference may be that the United Kingdom is not yet in its first republic.
There is no date on which democracy was born in the UK. The undeniable improvement of democracy in the UK, compared to the monarchical rule of the royal family practiced in the 16th Century has been achieved largely without revolution. There have of course been violent conflagrations between state and citizen that should not be forgotten. People have suffered for democracy and died for the vote both in the UK and in France. However British democracy has evolved, it has not been rebooted. Biological evolution has left humans with an appendix, an organ with no function but to explode at random and poison the body. Similarly the gradual evolution of parliamentary democracy has left a potentially fatal ghost to haunt the body politic.
This gradual evolution makes the UK one of only six countries in the world without a codified constitution. It has conventions. It has procedural rules dispersed through numerous documents, penned throughout the centuries. This is why it is so hard to understand what on earth is going on in parliament. I once favoured the UK constitutional approach to the American. In school I learnt the pros and cons of codified vs uncodified. The shortcomings of the latter have been amply proven by the despot-in chief across the Atlantic. When the rules are written, they can be reinterpreted and wilfully misinterpreted. The strength of having convention and not copy is convention cannot be twisted by the most expensive lawyer.
I now recognise that my faith in the UK system was rooted in a faith in the imaginary ‘British character’. The idea that politicians can be expected to behave because to do otherwise is just not cricket is a fanciful residue of the indoctrination of my youth. The vision of Britain the just, is the purposeful whitewashing of the British Empire in the classroom. The British people may have a passion for moral up-standability, for queuing in line, but the British state has never shared this propensity. It has inculcated and taken advantage of its fine people. It has preached a twisted vision of moral propriety and made us complicit in continuing oppression and the upholding of its imperial policies in the interests of the few.
The defining element of UK governance, is parliamentary sovereignty; the notion that ‘no government can bind its predecessor.’ This means conventions should be followed but a majority in parliament is at liberty to rewrite the rule book on a whim. When David Cameron introduced fixed term parliaments most democrats saw it as a success. I agree that moving away from elections triggered only on the inclinations of parliament (and hence the party that holds a majority in that house) is progression. However it should unveil the deeply precarious nature of democracy in the UK. It would only take the same number of MPs votes to eradicate voting and install a one-party state. That would be far from cricket; but the party in to bat is its own umpire.
The lack of any entrenchment of hard fought victories of justice, such as the 2/3 vote required to rewrite most major constitutions, is a danger to us all. The birth of the EU has constrained a number of these issues as all laws must be compliant with EU laws. In this sense parliamentary sovereignty had been eroded by EU membership. The desperate and successful calls to take back control show that the people of this country want more power over their lives. This is not what awaits them when parliament is freed from EU oversight.
It is clear that Brexit must be put back to the people, but a vote, just like a pre-made sign does not provide for the diversity of opinion. We must learn from this moment that people need voices as much as they need votes and this should form the basis of the next great constitutional reform. A Citizen’s Assembly on Brexit could pave the way for a broader consultation on constitutional affairs where change is decided from bottom-up, not top-down so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our past evolution. The danger of continuing to mask divisions and disagreement in unity through first past the post systems and binary referendums is that Britain’s next stride may be formed through violence and there is little guarantee it will be in a positive direction.