So we've talked a lot about Brexit in this show. But we've never had an entire episode focused on Brexit and its impact on British democracy and democracy in general. We need to have that conversation. And to have it.
Last week James Bridle memorably described British parliamentary democracy as “a poor system led by donkies.” This week, we talk to Clare Fox, the founder of the London based think tank The Institute of Ideas about Brexit and the crisis of British parliamentary democracy.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode with Claire Fox, you can find out more about him her:
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Produced by Jason Sanderson -Podcast Tech
[00:00:25] Clare welcome to keen on democracy. Good to be here. So pleasure. Let's not get lost in the weeds here. We're talking. In London in. Early to mid April. I'm sure by the time this show comes out something dramatic will have happened on the Brexit from. In terms of Britain maybe being kicked out of the EU or doing a deal. But I'm more interested in standing back and figuring out firstly what this whole Brexit thing has been about. And secondly and most importantly what its impact has been on British democracy.
[00:00:58] So I think that actually if it started off as a debate about whether the UK should be in the European Union it's moved away from that and become a much bigger deeper crisis of democracy. And there's a number of reasons for that. Partly the rail about whether Britain should be in the EU. Centred around sovereignty and whether the EU is democratic or not. So there was already a democracy debate of some sort. It was also the case that I think the British government at the time of the referendum. Saw the. Referendum itself as a way of and they actually made this explicit. Of handing over power to the electorate. I mean they said we can't resolve this. We are. Charging you with making this decision it will be a once in a lifetime decision. It'll be a big important constitutional change.
[00:01:49] You get to decide it. So this was the referendum in 2016.
[00:01:53] 2016 the British people voted on whether or not they should remain part of the EU. Isn't that a perfect example of democracy in action.
[00:02:01] Well that's what I'm saying. You could say that the Parliament asked the electorate in a direct way. I mean you might not want to use referenda all the time but in this instance we were told this direct democracy. Would be the deciding factor and your interpretation is that.
[00:02:19] The parliament went for this plebiscite side because the parliament itself couldn't resolve the issue.
[00:02:26] There's an argument about why. But certainly there was an internal argument within one of the political parties a conservative party. Europe had halted it. And I think the general view was if we have a referendum this will once and forever put the issue to bed. Now what was assumed was that you'd have that referendum. And the people in the UK would vote to stay in the EU. And then why. Because the assumption was that when it came to it. It was such a big crazy decision to leave an institution that we'd been in for a long time. That sense would prevail status quo would work. So we underestimated what happened.
[00:03:05] What then happened was when you say was that a media assumption was that a political or business assumption.
[00:03:11] Political Business and Media assumption.
[00:03:14] I mean there was something even the people who were in favour of Leave. Yes even the people in favour of leaving.
[00:03:19] Suddenly thought Oh now that we're going to be asked it's going to be a struggle and a fight and an argument. And during the course of the months in the build up to the referendum. It felt at the beginning as though nobody my vote you know maybe it would be not even a big turnout. But it gradually built up steam. And it's very interesting because the whole of the British establishment lined up to say don't leave. Multinationals banging Boris Johnson in two or three well-known British politicians didn't. It's not quite the same as 80 percent of the elected employees or all the main political parties or every single business they did so it felt like a David Goliath fight. The influence was definitely. Everybody and I mean everybody. Including Leveson was shocked when the result came in. It was a perfect.
[00:04:11] Working of democracy. The interests of capital and culture were on one side the people on the other side and the people one is not feeling so great excitement when that happened in a book some people great shock.
[00:04:23] I mean what was your response. I campaigned for leave. I was surprised but I was delighted and said you were one of the few elites who actually were in favour of leaving. Yeah.
[00:04:32] And I was hardly the most influential and not so influential is to be able to take on everyone but yes I was one of those political leaders to put everything on the table politically.
[00:04:41] Your you're a left left critic of kind of EU capitalism. Is that fair and in fact there had been a tradition on the left in Britain. Of being historically hostile to the EU. But when push came to shove in the referendum a lot of people on the left panicked. And thought it would be associated with the right. With populist forces.
[00:05:02] The kind of fear mongering around what it would mean. And so a lot of the left didn't campaign for leave or kind of were more either neutral or campaigned for remain so it was quite an isolated. I was unusual I'd say.
[00:05:12] And would you call yourself a Corbyn I'm sympathetic. The interesting thing is is that I would.
[00:05:17] Agree with Jeremy Corbyn on guess what the EU until a referendum happened. Now I'm not one of the things as well but. I'm not a Labour Party supporter straightforwardly.
[00:05:26] And then what do you make of the argument amongst some of the remind people that the debate was somehow rigged that the leaders lied and dangled all these promises which they couldn't actually come through with. Well everybody.
[00:05:39] In that referendum behaved atrociously in my view on all sides. Was it the idea that leavers uniquely lied or tangled promises. Would be to mischaracterize. Because what actually happened was that all of them said preposterously untrue.
[00:05:55] Isn't that what politics is not. I'm not complaining.
[00:05:58] That's the point. I'm not complaining. The side that lost. Went on to say. We lost unfairly even though they were the forces of the establishment on their side. They said.
[00:06:08] You uniquely lied on the Leave side and you don't think that there's any any legitimacy to that argument.
[00:06:14] I think that there was lies told on all sides. That's what I'm saying. But listen something else happened which maybe the. Listeners will be interested in. Which was there was an upsurge of. As it were democratic engagement in the build up to that referendum and subsequent to it. Of people talking about politics. We couldn't go to the pope or you couldn't go to the school gate or everywhere you went people were saying What are you going to do in the referendum. In other words people took. That role as voters seriously. They were told. You have one chance to change history. And they sell alcohol. This is serious. So they didn't just believe. What leave leaders Ed or anyone else said. They kind of went off and I googled and they asked their mates. I met some coworkers where my mum is in a car home and they were saying we're in North Wales. And they said Oh Colin we're having a staff meeting on it. We took them at tariffs and one lady said I've got a family conference at home and my son's off in the library getting books. I mean there was a sense of. Palpable. Democratic excitement. So then. Leave winds. And straight away instead of everybody saying right now. This is the new focus for the UK. Suddenly all of the people in power said Oh my God what a disaster. The voters have got it wrong. This is an example. Of. Ignorant. The of American deplorably as. Racists because they don't like foreigners which is a complete smear. These people need to be. Held in check. Those great insults thrown at the electorate. So from being a great democratic moment it suddenly became. A period in which everybody started to question. Whether democracy.
[00:07:54] Was any good. Was the response of the Romanians who as you've indicated tend to be the elite themselves and media or in finance or in politics.
[00:08:05] Was their self-interest there or were they just horrified with the bad taste of the electorate.
[00:08:10] I think it was a combination of both. I mean I think it was. A combination of thinking this will damage our business arrangements that have been set in place by experts who know what they're talking about. And suddenly all these kind of to caricature it plebs have emerged you don't know anything. But then there was a kind of distaste as well they're not very well educated they're not the kind of electorate we're used to. They seem to care about things we don't care about. They'd never been noticed beforei.e. the vast majority people in this country. Most people who run society don't spend their time thinking about what people in Sunderland are worried about or what people in but they do in elections don't they. But the electoral first past the post system means that there's. There's not the same attention to the electorate as the has been.
[00:08:52] But anyway so far so good about it. And they said they don't want to stay part of the EU. The subsequent story has been a fascinating one in relation to democracy. An open expression of the problems of the electorate not being up to the job. Expressed in a way that you would. Find distasteful in the past.
[00:09:13] Anti-democratic trends being openly discussed. I want to. Emphasize that by the way millions of people voted remain in good faith. They are voters too. I'm not trying to say. Everybody you read pretty good. I went it was pretty it was 52 53 48. In percentage terms. But many of the people in fact most of my friends voted remain and. They accepted the vote. They lost they thought the good guys had lost that they then fell oh well we now live in the EU. But from the point of view of the people ruling society a different story emerges which is. That there's an attempt to say oh this is going to be so awful. That we've got to. Negotiate some kind of a settlement with the EU. That will cause the least change possible. And the least disruption to the way things are. Which slightly misinterprets the vote that was so obviously about shaking up the status quo wouldn't change.
[00:10:05] And meanwhile the government that had organized the referendum. David Cameron quit because he was in favour of staying. And Theresa May takes over who also was a Romano.
[00:10:17] Yes and she said Well I'm a reminder. I mean it was a shock when David Cameron left because it was a bit of a Michael. The Prime Minister restarted this kind of walked off. With the leadership. There was then some internal bloodletting within the Conservative Party. May remains is. Not a voted for leader but almost a default leader because with so many fallout. He says Well don't worry I will do what the people of the UK have demanded of us. We'll have Brexit. But then she called a general election fairly shortly afterwards.
[00:10:49] But I just go back to Cameron.
[00:10:52] A lot people argue that he's the real villain of the piece by calling the referendum in the first place. What do you make of Cameron's decision.
[00:10:58] To have the referendum.
[00:11:00] Well I think that his motives might not have been the ones that I'd share. As I say it might have been a kind of active. Almost political cowardice anyway to kind of hope that he could use the electorate as a stage army to resolve the EU question by having a referendum in his own party which has been this spineless fight in the his own party. He then thinks if he can get the electorate to vote Remain. It'll settle it. But that would mean well you come out vote the way we tell you to. Then you go back to your box and look to your left on the job for us. It didn't go as planned. Let's put it that way.
[00:11:32] So back to terrorism.
[00:11:34] So she goes off to Brussels to do the deal what she calls an election first and rather than romping home in that election actually she doesn't do very well. The interesting thing about that election. Was that it was called as a Brexit election. She then doesn't talk about Brexit at all during the day. I notice the Labour Party really the Labour Party just said Don't worry we'll deliver Brexit but we don't want to talk about it either because no one could talk about it cause the parties is both so divided.
[00:11:59] Is that fair.
[00:12:00] Exactly right. But they both stand on manifestos that say. We will deliver on the people's vote for Brexit. They worry about that. And then Theresa May proceeded to put forward a range of very unpopular ludicrous policies. And one of the things that's also occurred which is important maybe understand is in the council local elections that happened before the general election. There was a big upheaval which was a lot of working class. Labour voters voted Conservative in those elections because they will leave voters. And a lot of middle class. Remain voters voted Labour. So there was a switch round. Thinking that the Labour Party were more likely to overturn the sense of the political parties which historically been divided on class and labour and wealth.
[00:12:49] Became de facto pro or anti EU parties even if the leaders didn't even acknowledge that.
[00:12:55] And that's exactly the way it happened. As it happens they're now associated. With civil war around this very question I'm probably not going to survive this in the long term.
[00:13:05] It's so weird to have a party system organized around issues that seem in some ways archaic and don't address the great issue of the day. So. This is not confined to this country. But one of the problems with the parties over the last two decades is that they've been hollowed out.
[00:13:24] And they've become quite managerial technocratic parties that have actually not had very strong social bases anyway. And one of the big. Explanations I think of Brexit is it was a revolt against that. Managerial. Kind of disdainful distant socialist.
[00:13:42] It's not just managerial clarity that the crises have taken over both parties at the local level. If you're talking about that as subsequently. I'm saying that this was a reaction against a fellow hollowed out as ideological that parties. Subsequently of course what Brexit as unleashed.
[00:14:00] Is a different question. I mean then we're now talking about all sorts of different interests emerging. So so so far in the narrative.
[00:14:09] Democracy is functioning but people voted to leave and the government acknowledged that they would leave the secretary himself out in terms of democracy. The story gets complicated by two things the negotiations with the EU. Happen.
[00:14:24] Behind the backs of the electorates if he wants and which is fair enough.
[00:14:28] I mean wouldn't the highly technical. CARNEY I'm not all but I'm saying so you sit around for two years.
[00:14:33] There's a culture war about Brexit. But broadly speaking apartment people shouting at each other and insulting each other. Everybody carries on with their lives. But there is a kind of deep rift in society deeper than maybe people had anticipated. That's a cultural as well. However what then mums is before Christmas. It became clear what kind of deal had been negotiated. This is last Christmas Christmas at 20 a team. Yeah. And I don't want to go into the details of it but it became it emerges that the negotiations with Brussels have been conducted. In a way that is not going to allow what most people eventually thought which was to cleanly leave the European Union. Is that essentially because of the complexity of the Irish question the complexity of the Irish question emerges then as one of the big issues and no one even knew that when the vote happened in the first place neither side made drew attention to it.
[00:15:27] And they know it did the pundits like you. Were you aware that this would happen.
[00:15:32] I don't think it's as big an issue as it's been turned into. And therefore you could say it was a technical issue that you would have to deal with but not the big political issue that it's become. And I don't want to go into the detail of that but I think it's been overstated on both sides myself. Well then I was I started to meet and hear from people who voted Leave before it became obvious what these negotiations meant. That people were saying. I'm like God. Have you seen what's in this proposal. What's changed and this is an important point for democracy is. If in the past a government could say Don't worry we've got this nice little deal we assure you it's Brexit. You don't have to worry about it. Because of this renewed interest in democracy. People would say excuse me I've read it on page 33 section two way. And when I say people would say that I mean.
[00:16:22] Joe Smith down the road or Norah Jones you know that people not as you referred to earlier who were paying attention. So again democracy is working that democracies work. They're watching their government. Exactly. In the interim. However.
[00:16:37] The decision is taken away from that referendum and confined to parliament. So we now have this is where the crisis line is in Britain a parliamentary democracy yes. But this is the difficulty. We have a parliament. In which the majority of employees disagree with the. Electorate as they voted at the referendum. So about 70 to 80 percent of the economy which is. Employees in Parliament. Want to remain in the EU. So I mean voted domain.
[00:17:06] So they've essentially hijacked the process. So there is a crisis because the parliament itself is divided anyway.
[00:17:13] Not along party lines but alone. Whether you stay in or how you leave or all of these different factions. But anyway the decision is now been removed from the electorate. So the electorates stand.
[00:17:24] Watching uphold. So in your view the villains on this E R G group the right wing of the Tory party of the William Rees-Mogg or the. Boris Johnson as the villains are the Romanians in Parliament.
[00:17:36] There's lots of villains in parliaments on that. We're all going to con financially and because there's lots of tension because then a lot of the people who support. Remain. This is a popular point by the way. Once the second referendum. They want what they call a people's vote. And that's a scary thing. I think it would be hugely damaging to the Democratic process. But they see themselves as representing the people again saying I've become so convinced with the sort of the truth of their position is that they also think that the electorate will lie to.
[00:18:08] That and they tend to be sort of metropolitan liberals. That's as I characterized and with some market share characterize the base. But I don't I don't want to do the same thing that people do to me all the time which is to ave a caricature of people.
[00:18:21] But nonetheless that's got a popular mandate. It's got a lot of people supporting it. But what I'm saying is is that if you've got the ideology on one side. Which is the European Research Group which is the kind of hard Brexit is I think. You're considered to be an extremist these days if you just want to leave the EU even though that's in fact what was voted for that kind of holding on labour that. You then got a group of people who say let's overturn the whole thing. And we'll do that virus second referendum because we should remain and if you ask the people again might have changed their minds because they were so ill informed the first time. So things have polarized this essentially. Both in parliaments and actually in the country. You've also got a situation where whilst I think some people have changed their minds on both directions. There's been recently. A well-known. Journalist Peter O'Byrne. And commentator. He was a live supporter. He's just come out and said he's changed his mind it was a disaster. I would say that there's no substantial indication from the polls that any major shifts actually. So what's the referendum. I think you'll get the same way. So in very brief terms Claire and a couple of sentences.
[00:19:25] What is the crisis here of democracy that Parliament is not carrying out the will of the people.
[00:19:31] The parliament is dysfunctional now that the party political system is broken. All of those things and more.
[00:19:37] And that's quite serious isn't it. I mean people see that parliament is at odds with the country. And seems to be defying. An electoral mandate. Secondly that it itself can't agree on anything because it's actually me saying split into different directions. As a functioning parliament is also problematic. That they can't agree. Even if it's too to be in defiance of the people. They agree on that day. But then after that they disagree. And then. The party system. As such I think he's now. In crisis so there's been lots of stories recently. From both political parties that activists won't sign up to go and canvas. Or stand in local elections because they're so disillusioned with. The fact that their representatives are behaving in this way. I think that we're seeing something of what's happening around Europe which is the collapse of mainstream political parties. I don't think in the UK it'll happen straightforwardly. But I can say that this is not over. And a lot of people will say I'm so fed up of this. I just want things to go back to normal. And I mean a lot politicians and commentators think that if only we could just get some kind of a footy deal. Everything will go back to it and then we'll forget all about it. It's much deeper. Problem than that. I don't think people will forget for generations and the acrimony and the bitterness means that this is where I get worried. That if you feel that you are not being ruled by consent. That you've used your vote in good faith and then it's ignored. The parliament doesn't any longer. Act on behalf of the people.
[00:21:14] Then what are you going to decide. So what's the worst case narrative here. Is it that people turn their back on parliamentary democracy. The rise of a charismatic leader and they're girl on a tram proposed scenario in the UK. The political parties just fall apart people stop being involved with them and democracy loses its legitimacy is that.
[00:21:36] The worst case scenario. I think so yes. And I mean it doesn't mean that they can't be positive outcomes because the more positive way of looking at it. I think it's tragic to hear so many people saying I will never ever ever vote again. So people everyone saying that that's a very popular sentiment amongst leave voters you've got to understand it looks leave aside or voted no. However. For anyone. And these are not just people who've never voted before and voted for the first time in the referendum which by the way was a huge turnout. With a massive the largest vote in British history. Their votes just say then they'll never vote in referendum that giving up on political parties mainstream. And saying they won't vote again. It's not just going to turn into an apathetic kind of disengagement. It's deep Flori and sense of betrayal. And that's not good in my view and it will emerge. Right. Maybe positively in some instances a positive parties emerge. But we all know what the danger is.
[00:22:33] Before we get onto some positive solutions to this. Often people talk about Brexit and Trump in one breath or one sentence I read the same thing.
[00:22:42] Do you think they're not the same thing. Because there was an engaged electorate that really did think about whether it wanted to be in the EU or not.
[00:22:49] So you're saying that didn't happen in America. No no I'm saying that that wasn't about the EU in America. Sort of no my forces nationalism immigration. I don't see the role of elites.
[00:23:00] I don't think that nationalism is quite but I wasn't trying to do that disavow any kind of similarity. I'm just saying there were specifics in each instance that you just wanted to say that the same. I think that you can see throughout Europe and with Trump's America. That people who were erstwhile ignored and feel that they didn't have a voice in politics. Have fought back. And that. In. Different ways they wanted to give a bloody nose to the establishment. But they were also informed enough to say no I actually prefer Trump versus Hillary. Or I want to leave the EU. And get away from an anti sovereign up to something that affects our sovereignty. Just on the nationalism point. This is quite important I think. I think national sovereignty is not the same as kind of racial nationalism. And one of the ways that the Remain side in the referendum discredited themselves was to try and characterize anyone he. Argued for national sovereignty. As being kind of. Right wing ultra nationalist ethno nationalists brachial. And that was an insult rather than understanding that sovereignty. Does take the form of nation states and there's nothing wrong with saying we want more of it.
[00:24:06] A brief comment Clare on the role of the Internet and Facebook in particular here. Some people at least blame certainly Facebook for the supposed manipulation of the vote. I think that there was a very long attempt saying and this will have to be the case that people. Largely on the Leave side try to use data and Facebook provided my data to read voters and manipulate them and to influence well manipulate so loaded with to influence voters via the use of Facebook and social media.
[00:24:39] In very similar ways that Obama did in the American election successfully managed to do that. But I don't think that it swayed that the idea that somehow it's a discrediting thing that he did that or that somehow that was substantial. One of things that social media has done which is fascinating to me. Is that it's led also to a greater sense of solidarity. More I've never been on social media have joined it. There's a sense in which people now can debunk establishment.
[00:25:05] That's when I became more of a tool of technology for democracy rather than making it go either way. It's also indicated the depth of bitterness and bile exists because there's so many hashtag groups.
[00:25:16] On both sides who it's kind of insulting to each other. You can see that but at least you can see it and kind of measure something of the temperature of the country via it.
[00:25:24] So Clegg is technology the solution here. Or do we need to. Rethink democracy. Last week we had James Bridle on the show the author of the new dark age. Who used the model of citizen assemblies in Ireland. As a solution to figuring out complex problems in large democracies. And the Irish ability to solve or at least to regulate or legislate the abortion issue. In contrast with the massive Brexit in the UK our citizen assembly is the solution.
[00:25:55] Well citizen assemblies is being widely talked about and people now say we should have had them join the Brexit referendum. But in fact. They themselves can be open to manipulation and kind of cheering and it's not quite as rural and dirty as the kind of act the people. I'm not kind of ideologically opposed to them. I think that moving forward the point is the referendum in the UK happened. One way do you have to respect that. Whether you would then say let's look at new models that's fine with me. What I would say is is that once you have a referendum it has to hold. Whatever form you had. So for example the abortion referendum in Ireland is a really good one. They had it. One side one can imagine if the government having moved it. It doesn't matter what how it was conducted. Can you imagine that just that. Thank you very much. We've lost you now.
[00:26:42] Go away. You got it wrong. And also I'm guessing that had the citizen assemblies decided that abortion should remain illegal.
[00:26:49] Metropolitan Lib Dems wouldn't be enough savvy citizens assemblies are just vehicles for experienced rage. Exactly.
[00:26:57] And you can imagine if I'd said similarly on gay marriage. You know we don't actually approve of this. Those referendum results coincided with what the establishment were hoping might happen. I mean I'm not gonna happen right. But it's also true that in a very famous Irish referendum in relation to the EU. When the Irish voted. Against the EU not leaving it. But in the past. Guess what. The Italians can have the referendum again until they got the right result. That's the way it feels it's happening here as well. So perhaps the real problem is not so much an institutional political one or a structural one in terms of. Constitutional Democracy.
[00:27:32] But a cultural one associated with our views. We have become so intolerant of other people's opinions. That democracy can't work because we won't accept the legitimacy if the other team wins. I think that what democracy really means.
[00:27:47] Hasn't been felt for many decades. People haven't really had to think about what it means to say the demos decide you know employees themselves don't feel themselves to be servants of the people which is what they are. That's what they're there to do but not in a straightforward kind of duty. What we tell us but they are beholden to they only get. Authority. And legitimacy through the electorate. And suddenly the electorate back on the historic stage and people who are a bit sort of like Oh my God look at them. They're a bit of an unruly rabble. I think if anything gets enlivened my view. That democracy and popular sovereignty is exactly what we need to solve the problems. Because actually people when they come alive politically and talk about things. Exhibit. That they aren't part of a group think that they have to think for themselves. And the fact that the politicians have turned their back on democracy doesn't mean the rest of us should.
[00:28:38] I'm finally clear I can't resist doing this. I know it's a dumb question but I have to ask you and I'm sure you've been asked one hundred times before it's Tuesday the 9th of a pro It's lunchtime in London where the where in the heart of Soho one Greek street. How's this thing going to get resolved. [00:28:52][13.8]
[00:28:53] What's gonna be the final final outcome here. I don't think we're ever going to leave the European Union and as an aside it's an ongoing nightmare. It's an ongoing nightmare that will go on and it's almost gone past that's no time. People who say this is not good for the economy and it was never now about the economy. I'll tell you what's not good for the economy is. Lack of decisive leadership and nobody helping the Bulls it's sorted out.
[00:29:16] So I think what will happen is it will drag and Jack the night of the Living Dead living.